November 28, 2011 at 12:48 PM

‘Crown of Coal’—A Sean Healen Album Review

"Healen captures our undivided attention...by working with some of the most important music producers currently in the industry..."

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Despite its simplicity, the drumbeat that begins Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” is as familiar as any Tin Pan Alley melody. What few people know is that a 16-year-old music prodigy named Scott Matthews was behind the beat, on which Wonder built his funk masterpiece in 1972. It is Matthews and other musician/producers of his stripe that have framed our lives and memories with music by painstakingly extracting it from musicians and recording it onto machines. Santa Fe musician Sean Healen is now one of these musicians under Matthews’ tutelage and yet, Healen is not among Matthews’ famous clientele; he is not wealthy, adored by millions or even flashy. He simply sings the songs he writes, and on occasion we get to hear them too.

Healen captures our undivided attention—and perhaps the chagrin of his local contemporaries—by working with some of the most important music producers currently in the industry, including Matthews, who is at the helm of his newest project currently in production. Before his sessions at Matthews’ Tiki Town Recording Studios in Mill Valley, Calif. this summer, Healen was on the opposite coast in Kingston, N.Y. working with Malcolm Burn on a series of songs that would become Crown of Coal, Healen’s second full-length album. John Kurzweg produced his first album, Floodplain, in 2009. The Sean Healen Band, which included Kurzweg on lead guitar, was a staple in the Santa Fe music scene, before and following the Floodplain release. The band has since stopped gigging all together, but Healen can be seen live through scant solo offerings.

Kurzweg, Burns and Matthews aren’t the usual suspects behind an unsigned singer-songwriter. Collectively, these three producers have been responsible for the sale of millions upon millions of albums. Culturally speaking, these three individuals have undoubtedly touched and informed your life by the music that has flowed through their hands. So the question is not if Healen has enough talent to gain the attention of these successful producers; it is not a matter of having the ability to create an album under the pressure of people who have undoubtedly dealt with the most unruly scenarios inside and outside of the recording studio; it is not a question of his well-spring of songs running dry…it is a question of how Healen will decide to introduce himself to the bigger world and who among those he has worked with will have the chance to open the door first.

Crown of Coal is a spacious room. Within this room are transparent walls that provide the illusion of warmth, safety and permanence. And as these walls dissipate, leaving only the outlying vistas, Healen builds the moment with story and melody. Where Floodplain leapt with cathartic root tones—his guitar chords reconnaissance before rock swagger—Crown sets the atmosphere ablaze with tonality and gingerly structure in a way that Burn, who is Daniel Lanois’ collaborative partner, only could.

Burn’s treatment of Healen’s songs is similar to Emmylou Harris’ 1995 album, Wrecking Ball, which was produced by Lanois and where Burn played multiple instruments. The album was a creative departure for Harris. Gone was much of the Harris’ rootsy warmth and replaced with sweeping movements of sound. Crown’s opener, “When the Wind,” sets a similar stage. Here, too, is evidence of a country rock sound stretched beyond folk solidity. The mood is nervy and slightly unhinged, but never beyond its core values.

Throughout Crown’s eight songs, there are no declarations, punctuated guitar leads or hammering drums. Songs such “Come Down” and “Some Highway” offer Crown’s only reasonable entrée into radio rotation, but ultimately remain adverse to a cherry-picked playlist of any kind. Unlike the anthemic cuts in Floodplain that can survive the shotgun approach of mass consumption, Crown leans towards the curatorial, and perhaps at times, too successfully.

That the album leans inward and is preoccupied with its own serious tone twists Healen’s thoughtful lyrics into heavier versions of what may have been intended. Dry-witted, observant character narratives drive much of Healen’s songs. Under the weight of these arrangements, thoughtful as they are, Healen’s delivery loses some of its punch. It gains new angles and textures, but the uncompromised spirit that his lyrics and stories convey, take second chair to the lush and quirky environment in which they are enveloped.

This leads to a peculiar dilemma for Healen.

He has had the mixed blessing of working through much of his creative development, and indeed prompted by formidable mentors. More succinctly, it would be difficult for audiences new to his music to understand the totality of his range, and it’s tough to gauge who Healen is as an artist independent of those behind the board. Floodplain, Crown and his work-in-progress with Scott Matthews offer stark endgames that provide the complexity of the artist, but less so of the person. For an emerging musician, contending with compartmentalized labels is part of a larger marketing strategy; like it or not it’s part of the game. Healen will soon need to make the choice among his varied styles, if only to anticipate his break into other music arenas that call, ironically, for creative growth and sellability.

Crown of Coal is arguably the most sonically sophisticated album released by a Santa Fe musician this year. Its power lies squarely on its ability to surprise and surpass expectations of what roots rock can deliver. For the initiated, if one removes the pedigreed producer there is Healen’s raw talent peaking through. It may vary in degree and scope with each project, but it is evident with or without platinum records hanging on the wall wherever he is asked to play. Now, it is entirely up to him how he chooses to get there.

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