Graded on a Curve:
Jenn Grant,
Paradise

Nova Scotian pop singer-songwriter Jenn Grant emerged in the mid-’00s, first with a self-released EP, and then a full-length debut. She’s released five LPs to increasing critical acclaim since, sharpening her instincts and imbuing her contemporary folk-pop with increasingly lush atmospheres along the way. Paradise is her latest, and it’s available now on the Outside label in Grant’s home country and through Ba Da Bing! in the USA.

Prior to stepping out on her own, Jenn Grant was a touring-member of the long-running Halifax-based group the Heavy Blinkers; her EP “Jenn Grant and Goodbye Twentieth Century” came out in 2005 and stirred up enough notice that the Paris 1919 Sound label chose to finance her second effort of two years hence.

Enlisting the Blinkers, fellow Canadians Ron Sexsmith, Matt Mays, Jill Barber, and numerous others, Green injected occasional touches of jazzy tastefulness into an Americana-ish folk-pop equation for Orchestra for the Moon, with much of the disc suitable for café listening. 2009’s Echoes was the first of three releases for Six Shooter, the set raising the intensity and placing her firmly in the contempo alt-indie framework.

2011 brought her next album, Honeymoon Punch showcasing her versatility by opening with a rocker, though not so raucous as to alienate those attuned to her wavelength. Mostly, the record illuminated Grant’s inclination to tinker with the rudiments of her sound; the next year’s The Beautiful Wild was even more ambitious, validating the tag of songstress as she exhibited pop-auteur moves and raised the lushness quotient.

Compostela was a guest-studded (Doug Paisley, Sarah Harmer, Buck 65, Sexsmith again) yet highly-focused affair, and Grant’s first disc for Outside. The Beautiful Wild was informed by the terminal illness of her mother, and Compostela was largely shaped by her passing; Grant’s boldest and most personal record, it planted her firmly into the Adult Alternative category and earned her two Juno Award nominations.

If Compostela is bold it thrives on the artist’s sense of control and the familiarity of production by her husband Daniel Ledwell. Described as an attempt to make a psychedelic pop record, the results were gently so, and it was clear she’d undertaken a major progression from her more modest folkish beginnings. With Paradise, she continues the forward trajectory.

In contrast to Compostela’s psych qualities, there’s nothing gentle about the opener to her latest; this is unadulterated pop vividly rendered, its instrumental and production thrust decidedly of the moment. Throughout, Grant blends sophistication and earthiness in the manner of myriad Top 40 staples from the last 30 years, and “Paradise” indeed feels like a potential hit single.

Really, the only aspect that might hold the song back is its arty flare-ups, specifically intermittent synthetic strings, electronic warmth, and a momentary glitchy redirect that casually recalls some of ’90s subtly esoteric pop productions. “Galaxies” extends this template, adding electric piano, horns, and electro shimmer, but in service to Grant’s tidily energetic writing and gutsy singing nothing gets too florid.

She’s always had the pipes, but there’s a verve in her delivery that elevates the essentially straightforward pop of “In My Dreams.” The string section additives are also a nice touch, and when the fingerpicking and pedal steel arrive in “Lion with Me,” it brings ’00s alt-folk to mind rather than any kind of Americana throwback; the mid-song emergence of piano balladry only heightens the comparison.

Speaking of the 88s, “I am a River” finds Grant at the bench, the root of the song classic singer-songwriter stuff as the sounds swirling around it, including a Theremin-mimicking synth a bit down in the mix, solidify the up-to-date directive. It’s also impressive how “Hero” integrates a lively, robust drum pattern without coming-off like a premeditated dance track.

The distance between Orchestra for the Moon and this LP is substantial, and the fact only underscores how comfortable Paradise is. Comfortable but not complacent and especially not conservative, as “Dogfight” is an excursion into modern pop-soul. From there, “Rocket”’s throaty piano achiness transforms into crisp and rhythmic business, and “Sorry Doesn’t Know” deepens the groove while serving up another unfettered hunk of chart potential.

“Working Girl” plays around with a mildly baroque prelude before redirecting into more R&B-tinged territory complete with Grant’s multitracked backup. Meanwhile, Ledwell’s production is a little reminiscent of a selection from a mid-’90s Astralwerks sampler, and “Legacy” magnifies the chanteuse angle for the close.

Paradise is a satisfying endeavor in growth that’s easy to admire, though it ultimately doesn’t quite equal Compostela, mainly because it feels less personal. This one’s about exploring form and breaking new ground, and that’s perfectly fine. But if Grant ever manages to combine her prior album’s emotional heft with the sharpness of execution on display here, the results will be exquisite.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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