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Victoria Vox -- 'Key' (Obus)
RATING: ** out of 4
"Key," the eighth album from Baltimore singer-songwriter Victoria Vox, took an unconventional path to completion.
In 2011, the 34-year-old singer challenged herself to learn 52 cover songs, mainly as an opportunity to study how other writers craft songs. The next year, Vox took what she learned and upped the ante by writing and recording an original song each week. She and producer Geoff Stanfield then chose the 11 songs that make up "Key."
Vox, a graduate of Boston's Berklee College of Music, has a degree in songwriting, so her approach is not a surprise. There's a veteran's touch to the songwriting on "Key," which probably explains Vox's confidence in taking on the "52 Original Song Project." She is not one to suffer from writer's block.
And yet there's something missing here, despite Stanfield's quality production and Vox's always-pleasant voice. Some songs drag a bit -- such as the opener, "Daffodil," and "Guarded Heart" -- while others feel bogged down by cliches. "Let It Go," with its welcome rollicking pace, might have been one of "Key's" strongest tracks if not for generic lyrics such as, "Sometimes you gotta let it go / 'cuz it'll hurt more if you don't."
Vox succeeds when telling specific stories. "Mama's Lullaby," which was inspired by her stepfather's death, gives the listener a setting, multiple characters and even a song-within-a-song, all while resonating emotionally. "Out the Back Door," the best and breeziest song here, is a song about shoplifting that finds a kleptomaniac explaining himself to a rookie. There's no right or wrong, just clear-eyed storytelling.
With eight albums finished, there's little doubt of Vox's talent as a singer or songwriter. (Another example of her skill: She primarily uses a ukulele, without it ever coming off like a gimmick.) But "Key" feels uneven, and it's hard not to wonder if it could have been better had Vox -- and not the calendar -- dictated the pace. -- Wesley Case