Casey Stratton is an artist who understands the value of freedom. Despite being warmly reviewed upon its early-2004 release, Stratton’s debut album for Sony Records, “Standing at the Edge,” was tepidly promoted and went nowhere commercially. Produced by Patrick Leonard (perhaps best known for Madonna’s late-80s smashes), “Standing at the Edge” was a gem, with the gorgeous ballad “Cellophane” highlighting a set of songs both deeply personal and accessible. Stratton tasted success on the Billboard Dance Charts, as a remixed version of “House of Jupiter” lodged into the No. 1 spot for several weeks, but the album itself was lost in the shuffle.
After his disappointing experience with the majors, Stratton left Sony to record independently, and he quickly delivered an ambitious two-disc set of original material, 2005’s “Divide.” Fans immediately realized the benefit of artistic freedom, as it would have been unimaginable for Stratton to release an album like “Divide” under the auspices of a major label. Varied and strongly produced, “Divide” showcased Stratton’s unique and versatile voice, exceptional piano playing, and excellent melodic sense.
Stratton returns this month with “The Crossing”, his strongest output yet. “The Crossing” is a romantic and languid collection of richly melodic and introspective songs, beautifully sung and arranged. Stratton was evidently aiming for an intense, contemplative experience with this album, and he succeeds. He allows his stately compositions to linger and develop fully, and the 14 tracks clock in at nearly 80 minutes. It’s a lot of information to take in at one sitting, but the sweeping melodies and ornate arrangements never outstay their welcome. The production is crystal clear and warm, forsaking the glossiness of “Standing at the Edge” for a more intimate feel.
Opening track “Rising Sun,” is a poignant self-examination. Stratton sings plaintively, “I was searching for what I'd done wrong but the answer was hidden inside me all along.” The track ends with him questioning, “And will I do a better job this time? Will I know? Have I grown? Am I home?” Those questions seem to be the theme of the album.
Several stand out as being perfectly suited for any AAA-format radio station. “Cruel Hand of Fate”, “Lilacs” and “You Showed Me Again” are the most immediate and commercial. The superb “Blind,” a sadly regretful song about broken trust, is perhaps the most strongly melodic song, and it’s a shame its hidden away so deep into the album – it deserves a more prominent placement. “Sacrifice” is one of the edgier tracks, and brings some much-needed muscle to the mix. “Projector,” the briefest track, is propelled by a nice string arrangement. Any of these songs would no doubt elicit a strong audience response if given a chance at radio.
The powerful and emotive “Static into Sound” and the atmospheric “Final Stage” are both long and languid pieces. The blatantly political “False Prophet” (Stratton’s target in this song shouldn’t be too hard to fathom) and the atmospheric “Final Stage” are among the album’s more lengthy and elaborate works. “Final Stage” in particular is lovely, with Stratton’s voice reaching its upper registers and floating above the music gracefully.
The haunting “Wither and Die”, with its lovely piano intro, soaring harmonies and pulsing string arrangement, is one of the darker moments emotionally, and is a definite high point. The solemn title track closes the album with a plea, “Don't leave me drifting away from you, don't leave me drifting away from you.” As the subject matter veers between personal introspection and dynamics in a relationship, it becomes apparent that the two issues are closely tied – and that the questions posed in the opening track may not be easily answerable.
There is very little to criticize on “The Crossing.” Perhaps there are times when it would have been nice to hear Stratton allow a few rawer, more bare-boned tracks. The introduction to “There Lies the Answer” is so gorgeous with just piano and Stratton’s voice that it’s almost a disappointment when the strings, bass and drums intrude. Additionally, given the length and similar tempo and feel of many of the songs, a certain amount of sameness creeps in from time to time -- some variety might have resulted in a less cohesive album and a less unified sound, but some surprises might have livened things up a bit. But those are minor quibbles. “The Crossing” is an elegant collection of songs that are clearly deeply felt by the artist, and are ultimately rewarding for the listener.
Stratton may be an anomaly in this increasingly cynical world. He’s overtly emotional and wears his heart on his sleeve, often sharing similar musical territory with bands like Keane who aren’t ashamed of a good pop hook, big melodies sung with real fervor, and expressive lyrics. Stratton unquestionably deserves a wider audience, and hopefully through “The Crossing” and its supporting tour, he will have the opportunity to be heard. “The Crossing” is a thoroughly enjoyable listen, and proof once again that one doesn’t need a huge corporation interested primarily in profit and shifting units in order to produce compelling music. Check out more information and tour dates at www.caseystratton.com. Stratton’s live performances are fantastic, and should not be missed.