In an age where there are a billion singer songwriters out there and a little of Nashville rubs off onto so many of them infusing the rock and the pop with country (seemingly the only way some feel they can make the big time), it’s surprising to discover a performer from Nashville who isn’t quite so beholden to America’s core musical style. Step forward Hannah Fairlight, a woman who not only mixes 80s rock and 90s singer-songwriter styles on her 2015 release, but also revels in unfashionable 80s AOR moods that are quite unexpected. Wrapped up in a knowing title, ‘Bright Future’ cares not for fashion and in some ways should be all the better for that. However, it doesn’t care for consistency or honesty either.

While from the outset it might be obvious that Hannah has her own set of talents, she doesn’t seem to care how she actually uses them to get a leg up the ladder of fame. Her online bio proclaims her “a performer with a raw sense of risk”, but this release tells a different story. There’s no risk involved here at all; despite claims to the contrary, it’s all a rather calculated attempt at covering a range of styles on one release in the hope that one will get her noticed. That might sound cynical, but it’s also kind of true. There’s no real conviction and no loyalty to whom Fairlight truly believes she is; she seems happy for any prospective management and label to mould her into an easily marketable money spinner, whatever the genre. Of course, such an approach probably should have been expected from someone who’d stoop to appearing on a US music talent show just a year before making these recordings…

All that now said, what of the material that’s displayed on her second release? Despite those misgivings regarding her actual integrity, this EP includes two genuinely enjoyable songs. ‘Sign of the Times’ has a deep sound featuring Hannah working a mean Fender Rhodes. This makes a good first impression in that the simple interplay between the cool keys and choppy rhythm guitars (supplied by The Shazam’s Jeremy Asbrock) makes everything flow in a cool and retro fashion. Vocally, Fairlight finds a space that is a little reminiscent of Sheryl Crow – the bulk of the music, too, could have come from Crow’s own ‘Globe Sessions’ – and, as such, she sounds both moody and understated. Moving into the chorus, things take a slight turn; the volume increases, the guitars rise and Fairlight’s voice finds more of a force, without being forceful. If, at this point, you find yourself reminded of some of Meredith Brooks’s lesser known works, you wouldn’t be so far wrong. In all, this opener is one of the best tracks, largely down to that keyboard – the Rhodes is always welcome – but Fairlight also shows she knows her way around a lyric and a melody. The fact that it all has such a retro charm is a huge plus. The best track, ‘Money and Run’ is a slow piano ballad that places the singer songwriter in a world where she’s “placed on a pedastal, destined to fall”. Fairlight mumbles through most of the track in a suitably sultry style; the piano has a great presence, but soaring guitar lines win out with a very complimentary melody. Filling the spaces, synth strings and ringing guitars do their best to add to the general grandeur and while this might seem like a generic attempt to step on Sarah McLachlan’s coat-tails at first, repeated listens unveil a strong and well arranged number that – synth strings aside – could have a timeless appeal.

Of the lesser material, ‘Tomorrow’ finds a style that’s the closest the performer comes to her geographical origins. A rattling pop-rocker, this is very much driven by the drums, with Cardinals man Brad Pemberton hammering out some great rhythms. Augmented by electric and acoustic guitars, this upbeat musical travelogue is fun; a constant showcase for Fairlight’s voice, she adopts a much higher tone throughout – becoming especially rousing upon reaching the chorus. All the while Asbeck cranks out a pleasing ringing tone, ensuring this pop rocker has just enough grit and never becomes too country. With a funky guitar and quirky verse with an alt-pop bounce, the title track is shamelessly pop oriented (certainly far more pop than anything you’d normally associate with Dokken and Skid Row producer Michael Wagener who twiddles the knobs here), but there’s more here than mere sugariness. The intro and bridging melodies are geared further towards AOR with the kind of sound that Eddie Money would have worked into a hit during his peak, and a middle eight also rises up to more of an 80s crescendo, a style with which the performers seem very comfortable. The melding of the two musical moods is okay, but doesn’t work as well as it should. It’s unclear whether the bubblegum chorus is just too simplistic, or whether the arrangement needed fewer keyboards. Whatever, it’s just a bit too throwaway after the moodiness of ‘Money and Run’ and the recording budget means it doesn’t punch in the way a hopeful pop hit should. Lastly, ‘Don’t Wait Up’ – a shameless AOR homage – has a defiant mid pace and roots stemming from 1985. It ambles like a tune that should’ve been called ‘Don’t Walk Away’ (if you’re an AOR fan, you know the one) and could have been written by Mark Spiro or Franke Previte. The keyboards that drive the piece have a flat sound akin to various bands from 1982, while Fairlight carries the bulk of the tune with her voice. Her vocal range isn’t the best, but there’s a friendliness to her performance; although the budget is low, it’s easy to see what she was aiming for. A simple hook increases the AOR factor (this track supposedly includes the legendary Mitch Malloy on backups, though you can’t pick him out) and a saxophone solo comes as somewhat unexpected. If there’s any real criticism, though, it’s that the guitars should have been a few notches louder. All things considered, this is still reasonable AOR fare. Listening to it brings back memories of hearing the Dante Fox debut for the first time; you know there’s a better song trying to find its way from what’s essentially a polished demo recording…

While this EP is reasonably enjoyable to a point, with two of Ryan Adams’s Cardinals, a power pop cult figure, renowned rock producer and Mitch Malloy on board, it deserved to be much better than it actually is. Part of that is down to budgetary constraints, of course, since at least three of the songs are from obviously good stock and deserved a much bigger send off. As previously stated, it’s a definite drawback that Fairlight doesn’t have confidence enough to know her own style and run with it. In a blatant attempt to curry favour with audiences, these five songs attempt to please at least three different listening demographics…and yes, there’s more than a fair chance that a percentage of those who’ll actually listen to this will find something they’ll like, but surely, for somebody who’s supposedly serious about music, it would’ve been better to absolutely nail a specific style? Even with a couple of points of obvious contention, ‘Bright Future’ should still be worth a listen for open minded fans of pop-rock. It’s got an element of fun, but whether the material has any real staying power…well, that’s a different story.

August 2016