There’s no question Sarah Morris’ new album, Ordinary Things, clearly works within an established tradition. Morris isn’t trying to remake the wheel with any of the release’s ten songs, but that isn’t to say that this is bloodless, risk-averse exercise. Morris sings with such unfettered openness that each new song comes as a gamble – how far will she sink into its lyrics, where will her voice go? It’s difficult to surmise much about a singer’s live vocals when listening to studio recordings, but if the songs on Ordinary Things can be trusted, Morris is a stunning singer who has apparently mastered control and technique.
“Brighter” begins the album on a decidedly upbeat note, but there’s a compelling contrast between the bluesy grit in her voice and adoring lyrical content capable of drawing in countless listeners. The music is a polished anagram of various styles, but light country strains are strongest here and elsewhere. Morris, however, flirts with pop rock leanings at scattered points and the third track, “Sway Me”, offers Ordinary Things’ best example of flexing its rock muscle. Zachary Schmidt’s drumming gives many of the album’s song an extraordinarily solid foundation to build from, but they are truly distinguished on songs like this thanks to the impetus he provides to the music. Morris steers herself into outright experimentation on “Nice Girl”. Listeners will hear few of the folk/country poses so prevalent on earlier tracks and, instead, get a shot of Morris they may not have expected. “Nice Girl” is pure three a.m. slow burn blues complete with Hammond organ and a nuanced band performance. The blues might be a mainstay of popular music, but it’s often a leaden, heavy-handed experience in crude hands. Not here however. Morris slinks and slithers through this track and imbues it with hard-won humor, vulnerability, and defiance.
“You Still Have Me” is another delicately built and measured piece based around acoustic guitars. It unwinds melodically in deliciously slow fashion and it’s equally pleasing to hear Morris’ attentive vocal finding soft spots in the musical lines to fill with her voice. The crescendos help vary the tempo some without ever sounding out of place when juxtaposed against the generally sleepy mood. Morris indulges her love for pop rock once again on “Careful, Careful” with additional vocal harmonies sweetening the pot. It’s a brisk, layered outing that conjures up a cloud of raucousness missing from much of the album without ever running off the rails. “Hope, Sweet Hope” is a highly appropriate closer for this album as it provides listeners with a musical evocative and highly literate restatement of the collection’s themes.
There are some moments on the album when you might find yourself wishing Morris wasn’t so content to fall back on the standard country shuffle arrangement used in more than a few tracks. However, it’s a small flaw if it can be dubbed flawed at all. Ordinary Things is a vivid collection centered on a vocalist working at or near the peak of her powers, but moreover, Morris proves herself to be a transformative singer capable of redeeming the mildest of songwriting deficiencies.