by Tim Crisp (@betteryetpod)
Saddle Creek’s reissue of Messes, Stef Chura’s 2017 debut full length, is the culmination of a long journey not traditionally associated with the release of a first record, but one that’s become increasingly more common in the age of Bandcamp. The album’s recording and initial release came out of a long process of sonic and emotional readying; of expanding on the foundations of an already captivating sound, and a decision to work on a larger scale. That Chura wrote and recorded Messes is achievement alone, the reception which followed and the seal of approval from a top-tier indie label is a clear indication that the effort was well advised and we should all be hopeful that the path to Messes really is just the beginning of a longer trip.
Stef Chura’s sound is a distinctive blend of two main sources. One is 60’s/70’s folk and the other is mid-90’s alt-rock. The folk influence shows itself in her earliest recordings where her distinctive voice and finger-picked guitar playing are already firmly in place. Scanning through write-ups on Chura amasses a list of a few handfuls of comparisons to other female vocalists—their gender is the only real common thread—but it’s impossible to feel incomplete in any comparison. Chura’s voice is husky and a little grating, there’s a quality to it suggestive of the singer’s ability to see through her subject and to just as plainly throw her own experience up for unapologetic analysis. “Thin like the skin on a lottery ticket,” she sings on Messes’ third track “Thin.” “Tried you on for a bit just to see if it’s fitting.” Her delivery on the soft syllables is light and airy, but drops to a low register on the second half of each line punctuating the metaphor and her own place within it. Thin, in this sense, is nearly transparent, and as Chura repeats the word over the course of the song’s final moments it is in a shared reflection of the feeling. Messes is filled with moments of observations such as these, Chura’s deftness with her voice allows for her to make her points subtly and plainly.
The same voice which lends itself to such bleak emotion also works as an affecting pop instrument. “Faded Heart” and “Spotted Gold” are total reverb ear candy. Chura trades in brooding finger-picking for a full strum and the band follows the pace. Sitting back to back at tracks 5 and 6 respectively, the songs show Chura observing first stillness and then prospective motion. On “Faded Heart” she sings “I thought I saw you standing on that little cloud / How did you get so loud?” The song builds around Chura’s cooing vocal. Both the band and Stef approach breaking off into rapture but remain reserved as the track fades off, giving way to the full press of “Spotted Gold,” a near-perfect pop song. In opposition to “Faded Heart” Stef offers directions for movement, repeating “But if you wanted to walk away” before belting out “You can do that!” in a perfect sing-along call.
Stef Chura’s path to Messes is one of years spent directionless; recording and playing sporadically in between enrolling and dropping out of college. The death of her best friend completely pulled the carpet out from under her, as she told me. In wake of the loss she said “fuck it” and began cocktailing at a strip club and drinking heavily, before making the decision to try to turn things around. An offer from her friend Fred Thomas to record a couple songs turned into making an LP. The songs on Messes track back to the beginning of Chura’s songwriting and, within them, tiny moments of the last eight years of her life are represented. What’s also represented over the course of Messes is the strengthening of Chura’s songwriting craft. If there’s a criticism to make of the effort it’s that the collection of songs, with the exception of the strong pairing of “Faded Heart” and “Spotted Gold,” can feel like just that: a collection of songs amassed over time. Very, very good songs though; full of life and promise. “Speeding Ticket,” the last song on the record, was written when Chura was 18 and appeared on her first two EP’s. On Messes it is given its first full studio treatment, with a knockout vocal performance and an orchestral feedbacking guitar-track that steers it towards doom. It is without a doubt the recording the song deserves. We have it now; and now that’s it finally been laid down Stef Chura is able to make another, free of obligations to the past, moving forward with confidence.