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Album Review: ELERI WARD: KEEP A TENDER DISTANCE is a Sequel That Lives Up to the Original

Album Review: ELERI WARD: KEEP A TENDER DISTANCE is a Sequel That Lives Up to the Original

Eleri Ward Tops Herself in New Sondheim Collection

Album Review: ELERI WARD: KEEP A TENDER DISTANCE is a Sequel That Lives Up to the Original Calling Eleri Ward a folk singer, although accurate, is to place her in a box that is truly too confining for the work she does. Folk music implies a simplicity of message and structure. Ms. Ward creates a complex hybrid of genres in her new album, KEEP A TENDER DISTANCE, which was released on Ghostlight Records this past Friday. It is a follow-up to her huge success last year, A PERFECT LITTLE DEATH. Both albums are, of course, collections of songs by Stephen Sondheim filtered through Eleri Ward's very personal style. Her's is a supple, rangy voice that is deeply rooted in emotion and story. She has the gift of letting an audience come to her rather than consciously pushing her art at them.

In KEEP A TENDER DISTANCE, Ms. Ward has taken a large artistic leap forward from her previous collection of Sondheim. A PERFECT LITTLE DEATH was recorded in the middle of the pandemic in Ward's home studio and contained 13 songs utilizing mostly just her solo voice and a guitar. The new album feels like an entirely more collaborative affair. There are a plethora of instruments and lots of backup vocals (even though many of the voices are Ward herself.) Her technique has grown sharper, both as a vocalist and an instrumentalist, and her emotional range is deeper and more on target.Album Review: ELERI WARD: KEEP A TENDER DISTANCE is a Sequel That Lives Up to the Original

Her arrangements as always are perfectly in the folk genre while still being very true to Sondheim's intentions. Ward's method of reimagining these classics is like watching someone make deviled eggs. She takes the essential ingredients of Sondheim's songs, mixes in new and thoughtful harmonic structures, and a dash of her own creative magic to reassemble something that is greater than the sum of its parts. She is quite faithful to Sondheim's melodic lines, breathing new life into these standards through harmonies and new tempos. Her fondness for keys that are more modal than either major or minor is a perfect match for the frequent ambivalence of some of Sondheim's more brittle lyrics.

She has chosen her tunes wisely from some of the less obvious gems of Sondheim's canon. Her "Merrily We Roll Along" is a wonderful introduction to her reflective style. She turns "Stay With Me" into a lover's plea that is heartbreaking. She sings both sides of the duet "Unworthy of Your Love" from Assassins, making it truly about obsessive love. "Johanna" in Ward's hands is a love song for the object of desire who is always just out of reach. She wisely pairs it with Into the Woods' "Agony."

Album Review: ELERI WARD: KEEP A TENDER DISTANCE is a Sequel That Lives Up to the Original She captures the detachment of "Another Hundred People" with electronic additions to her folk stylings. The highlight of this album for me is a very smart reading of "The Miller's Son" from A Little Night Music. She dances through waltz, bossa nova, and fandango sections illuminating the text of this wonderful song about grabbing life before the chance is gone. She examines the deep longing for connection in "Not a Day Goes By," "Not While I'm Around," and "No one is Alone."

Her most ambitious creation is a thoroughly ethereal reading of "Marry Me a Little." Ms. Ward's arrangement utilizes every bit of her vocal range from top to bottom. It is at once a cry for love and understanding that simultaneously exhibits impressive control. Her wrap-up is a version of "Move On" that is so warm and kind, that it sounds like maternal advice. It is a beautiful compliment to "Merrily We Roll Along" at the beginning, making this album seem more like a song cycle than disparate songs. Eleri Ward has created a story about finding your way through love and loss and regret and confusion in a world where there are no easy answers.

I was very fortunate to see Eleri Ward perform the songs from A PERFECT LITTLE DEATH last year at the Rockwood Music Hall. I hope she will take a similar path with KEEP A TENDER DISTANCE and take it on tour. The songs are a testament to the legacy and pliability of Sondheim's work. Ms. Ward is a wonderfully sensitive artist who enhances any tune she puts her hand to. And in the late Sondheim, she has found a partner as profound as she is.

Album Review: ELERI WARD: KEEP A TENDER DISTANCE is a Sequel That Lives Up to the Original

KEEP A TENDER DISTANCE and A PERFECT LITTLE DEATH are available from Ghostlight Records and all major streaming sources. To learn more about Eleri Ward check out her website eleriward.com or follow her @eleriward on Instagram or Twitter.

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