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Record review: Jeanne Jolly's A Place to Run

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The Raleigh singer Jeanne Jolly has a powerful and versatile voice, as capable of flying high for a soulful vibrato as it is dipping low for soft country ballads. It's earned her spots on stages with symphonies and on stages and in studios with the trumpeter Chris Botti. She's lent it to the R&B sophisticates The Foreign Exchange and has collaborated with roots music machine Phil Cook. She's steadily developed a solo catalog, too, culminating in the new eight-track album, A Place to Run.

But A Place to Run doesn't run so much as it ambles on course, never daring to pick up too much speed or stray too deep into the unknown. Jolly languishes in the adult-contemporary department, making moderate folk-rock with occasional inflections of blues and soul. All her outsider experiences barely make a dent on A Place to Run's smooth surface. Her songs touch on familiar singer-songwriter tropes—California, dreaming, hope, escape—but rarely offer a distinct spin on any of them. Yes, she's got a powerful singing voice; her songwriting voice, however, remains to be determined.

On "Good Man," Jolly praises the man in her life who loves his parents and turns her rain into sunshine. The idea is that he's something special, but she offers few grounding details, the real-life stuff that makes love songs like this more than cliches. You have to accept the fact that this person is an especially good man just because Jolly—her voice dressed in finery—says so.

During "California," she offers lines like "Sometimes in life, you don't get to choose the end" and "Sometimes in life, you don't get your goodbye," followed by a soothing refrain that repeats the title. It sounds wistful and sad, but lifted by piano and ethereal pedal steel, Jolly seems to hide her truest, deepest feelings. The results feel vague and incomplete. "Gypsy Skin" and "Boundless Love" do a better job of offering a sense of resolution, but they, too, offer more platitudes than specifics.

Jolly, at least, is a seasoned collaborator, and the excellent backing band she built for A Place to Run does her songs the most favors. With simple instrumentation, A Place to Run would be just another album in the unremarkable folk-rock pile. But James Wallace's varied keys and the woozy, wiggly guitar licks of producer Chris Boerner lend the LP intrigue and depth. Together, the two dazzle during the instrumental break of "The Dreamer," combining for a sweetly floating haze that validates the title.

A Place to Run finishes with "Circles in the Sky," a mid-tempo tune that was perhaps meant to be a meditative closing track but just feels anticlimactic instead. Soft vocal harmonies drift over acoustic guitar strums, and then it all just stops. A Place To Run has too few peaks to coast across the finish line like this, as though it celebrates a victory that doesn't actually exist. A Place to Run is painstakingly polished, but it rarely possesses the same power and punch as Jolly's voice itself.

Label: self-released

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