Sonia Rao, Los Angeles Part I
Release Date:September 17, 2013, digital download and CD
Release Events: Los Angeles – September 12
San Francisco – September 20
New York City – October 5
Reviewed by Brent D. Tharp
Sometimes, the choice of an album title conjures up all sorts of past-life imagery. Sonia Rao’s sophomore effort, Los Angeles Part I is one of those. As a former Los Angeleno myself, I can identify with the overall tone of the EP and some of the specific lyrics as well, but the downside is that the title always reminds me of X’s seminal album Los Angeles. Fortunately for gentle readers, I won’t be making comparisons between the two works, other than to note that I like the imagery of sprite Sonia Rao playing a baby grand to accompany Exene Cervenka belting eponymous single “Los Angeles” at the top of her lungs. Getting away from my overly literal interpretation of album titles, Rao’s voice is partly an amalgam of two singers, Natalie Merchant and Alanis Morissette, exuding the former’s vocal coloring, and the latter’s distinctive tones in the higher register. Lyrically, the first cut “You Say I” is reminiscent of Orianthi’s “According to You” (Believe, 2009). That’s the end of my direct comparisions—thanks for indulging me.
The first track, “You Say I,” though sounding familiar lyrically, has a lilting, moving verse, and a catchy chorus that is brighter and more entertaining than the lyrics initially would seem to indicate, as the song is really about moving on, not suffering. It also plays well with Rao’s voice, and has the elements of a hit single (it’s available as a single on iTunes, and a video was released on ARTISTdirect and YouTube). Rao’s voice is her strength as well as her weakness—her voice is distinctive, and with limited instrumental accompaniment, any departure from perfection is immediately apparent. For the most part, this works in her favor throughout the album, as she performs well on most tracks. The notable exception is “Little Blue Room,” which suffers from a mismatch of Rao’s voice with the guitar and backing vocals (or possibly excess reverb during recording). “The Greatest” is a love song showcasing Rao’s strong voice and range, and is lyrically unique—personally, I think this is the strongest song on the album. “Let’s Hate LA Together” is about choosing between stability, and chasing the dreams that make us who we really are, or could become. Similarly to “You Say I,” Rao manages to incorporate difficulty and sadness, while ultimately rising above that with the solidarity that comes from two people taking on the world together, or more generally, bright overcoming dark. Again, the lyrics are unique and unexpected. The closer, “Los Angeles,” is about Rao’s experience on NBC’s The Voice. It’s a solid song, and although it deals with a specific event in her life, Rao smartly makes the lyrics about the more global experience of finding oneself in a new place—alone, innocent, and exposed—and uncertain about whom to trust. In contrast with “Little Blue Room,” the accompaniment on this track, particularly an intermittent and mournful slide guitar, plays especially well with Rao’s vocals.
As with her first album, Calm Her, this album was crowdfunded (by a Kickstarter campaign; Calm Her was funded through IndieGoGo), and independently produced. Rao’s desire to identify with her listeners shines through on the record, and it should be interesting to see what she has in store for Part 2.
1. You Say I 3:13
2. Little Blue Room 4:05
3. The Greatest 4:12
4. Let’s Hate LA Together 3:39
5. Los Angeles 3:55
Players: Sonia Rao—music, lyrics and vocals. Evan Hillhouse—studio drums, guitar, bass and piano.
Production: All except “Los Angeles” produced by Evan Hillhouse and Josh Doyle at 3 Theory Productions, Van Nuys, CA. “Los Angeles” produced by Evan Hilhouse, engineered and mixed by Kurt Piar at Proving Ground Studios, Los Angeles, CA.
Label: None—independently produced.
Other: Lyrics and additional information available at www.soniarao.com.