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Watch a video for “Summer Sun” here
Sam Lyons has quite a strong CV. At the age of 16 he appeared on NPR. He’s won eight Madison Area Music Association Awards and been a performer at the annual event. He’s just released Trance, his third solo album of songs he wrote, arranged, produced and recorded in addition to playing a vast majority of the instruments on each. Did I mention he just graduated high school? In fact, Lyons, the youngest prodigy in a ridiculously talented family, deferred a scholarship to Berklee School of Music to concentrate on the making of Trance. Oh yeah, add Berklee to that CV.
Lyons’ music is a sophisticated blend of R&B, pop, soul and jazz all wrapped up in chord construction knowledge that any musical master would be envious of and a smooth, high tenor voice that vaults him into a league few others can occupy. On Trance, Lyons takes it a step further, getting more edgy and tossing in some contemporary hip-hop flourishes.
The eleven songs on Trance are largely all Lyons with help from his mate Chris Di Bernardo on drums. Pedal steel guitar ace Tom Dehlinger appears on three tracks. Brother Clay, a Berklee School of Music alum himself, contributes sax to one track and dad Phil, who has an impressive musical CV as well, plays trombone on one track. Studio wizard Mike Zirkel assists in production as does Kenny Keoppler but this is Sam’s show all the way. All the way to the Grammy’s someday.
The song construction here is just incredible and if there is one fault Lyons may have it may be that he is bursting with so many ideas he must find it hard to contain them. A typical Lyons song may have more twists and turns than another artist’s entire album. For a good freak-out, listen to Trance on headphones where the nuances and intricacies are best experienced.
The shift in Lyons’ direction is apparent from the first and title track. Lyons has a lot more going on rhythmically than he has in the past. “Mysterious Lady” continues that trend but really throws in a twist with Lyons’ ample layered synthesizers. This is an extraordinary track as just when you think it might be fading out, George Benson-like guitar figures rising and falling while multi-tracked vocals pan in and out, things take a strong left turn into a completely inventive coda that incorporates three or four changes of its own. Unreal.
Lyons tips his toe into romantic obsessions with “Just Too Young” singing “I Want to rock ya / I want to roll ya / I want to sing to ya / But you’re just too young for me.” Hard to imagine that being true for Sam – yet – but whatever, the funk here is enough to make Prince blush. Speaking of the purple one, the extended guitar solo Lyons tosses off in “For You” is just stupendous. “The Grind” is emotively raw, Lyons’ ability to match a very complex vocal melody with a chord progression that is so inventive it’s a marvel how he makes them work together. At well over six minutes, this one could have used some editing however, as he carries on way too long with the refrain, singing manically to the point of absurdity. “Summer Sun” and “Mrs. Williams” brings things back down to earth with Lyons’ trademark R&B and jazz delivered with a smooth vocal, leaping in and out of falsetto as he is want to do. “Life Is” and “Tammy and Bell” close the album and are the most radical departures of all, the former being almost entirely keyboards, drums and bass with Dehlinger’s echoed-out pedal steel haunting the proceedings while the latter is built entirely around an organ riff.
Trance is an album a good producer will love to hear because as it overflows with ideas it also overflows with potential and for a producer that means boiling things down a bit more into a more digestible result while preserving the rest for the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh albums. That’s true because there is going to be no stopping Sam Lyons. This kid is destined for something major. And when the right producer and label come along, look out. It’s going to be quite a ride.