Mentioning a musician once played with Sufjan Stephens is cause for excitement. St. Vincent and My Brightest Diamond both fall into that camp. But Shannon Stephens played with Sufjan before his solo days. In the 1990s, Shannon (we’ll use first names here to avoid confusion) voiced the Holland, Michigan, folk rock band Marzuki, co-led by Sufjan. Then, legend has it, she put out a self-titled CD of no-fi folk songs. The Seattle-based singer/songwriter proceeded to be a wife and mother for eight years before releasing 2009’s Breadwinner. And now she’s back with Pull It Together, her most inspired release.
Pull It Together has the unmistakable sound of a woman making music she loves to her own standards. The songs are woven together by a stripped-down, bluesy feel and soulful vocals, notable on songs like “Buddy Up to the Bully.” On “Faces Like Ours,” Shannon duets with Bonnie Prince Billy (Will Oldham) to sing of the human tendency to protect their own. The hushed piano and voice on “Cold November” sends the listener searching for a warm blanket and tea.
Though Pull It Together is the best of the three releases, it’s still lacking the variation between songs that makes a record shine brilliantly. Her song differentiation has picked up, but by contemporary standards still has progress to make. The instrumentation paired with the recording style borders on sparse, highlighting her vocals. Shannon’s voice and music are beautiful, but so classic that they verge on indistinct amid the cacophony of modern musical acts. Or perhaps that makes Pull It Together more striking.