Skittish’s Savannah Sessions is the latest release in Jeff Noller’s decade-plus old project and it is, overall, reflective of the same introspective direction common his past songwriting. Make no mistake, however, that Noller restricts himself. Some of the album’s tracks don’t hold the same appeal for me that others do, but no one can claim Noller fails to challenge himself. The predominant mood of the album, however, is acoustic. Though Noller’s presence is central to the release, numerous other musicians and singers contribute to the album with often spectacular results. I came away from hearing this release thoroughly satisfied despite some moments playing a little weaker than others. Imperfect or not, Savannah Sessions is a honest and unfettered reflection of where Jeff Noller is at this point in his life and made an immediate impact on me.
Noller’s songwriting skills are particularly sharp when it comes to vocals. His lyrical talents are considerable, many tracks included on this release bear this out, but his gift for arranging vocals in a dramatic way and the flexibility in his voice help shape Savannah Sessions for the better. It frames his writing in the best possible light. It is evident from the outset. “Intro (Vert)” is a short opener, but introduces listeners to the sound dominating much of this album. It’s illustrative as well of how Noller mines the bedroom folk/rock tradition for maximum value while still stamping his own personality on the songwriting. There are obvious frames of reference for this music, but it is never imitative.
“The Hole” and “Car Crash Companion” are two of my favorite tracks included on this release. Both songs introduce new voices to the album’s sound – female backing vocalists Rachel Boissevain and Juliana Henao Mesa mesh well with Noller’s voice and bring a different spin to these respective tracks and their energy is unquestioned. Noller plays piano on the former track and it sets a romping pace, but this remains a muscular folk track from beginning to end. “Car Crash Companion”, on the other hand, has rock inclinations you hear throughout and this first stab in that direction on the release convinces me from the first notes onward.
Brianna Tagg’s vocals take much more of a upfront role than Mesa and Boissevain’s singing. It is an exciting move from Noller to step back from the lead vocal role and allow someone else to carry his material, but his faith in Tagg is well justified. Her voice is an excellent fit for the musical identity of “Hello Deadly” and the song’s irrepressible swing, courtesy of drummer Oleg Terentiev, is something you can latch onto from the beginning. “Parallel Life” is an earnest miss, too cute by a half, but far from unlistenable. “Beautiful in Black” concludes the album with a song focused on vocals more than any other cut on the release and the layered harmonies are a treat to hear. It’s quite unlike anything else on the album and ends Skittish’s Savannah Sessions in an unique way.