If you pick up a copy of Sheila Shahpari's debut full-length, What Is Real — and if you like soulful, restless rock music, you should — don't be frightened off by the opening track, "Black Coffee." In an oversight in track sequencing, Shahpari chose to start off her strong, varied disc with her weakest effort, a piece of boho coffeehouse funk that finds her quoting Cypress Hill's "Insane in the Brain," scat-singing and threatening to "get down with the funk." Now, this type of jammy, acoustic soul turns up again later (albeit more successfully on the title track), but the rest of the disc finds Shahpari trying on straight-ahead guitar rock, whimsical orchestral pop and low-lit vocal jazz.
But although What Is Real never settles on one style, a few elements guide most of these songs: forceful acoustic guitars, exploratory piano-playing, intuitive tempo changes and, most of all, Shahpari's strong voice. At its best, it evokes Janis Joplin, Joanna Newsom and Nellie McKay — and even though her upper-octave wanderings don't always hit the mark, her vocal control is exemplary. She can summon the low-end piano exorcisms of early Fiona Apple on a song like "Stale," which mixes jazzy swing, start-stop cabaret melodrama and urgent rock rhythms with a stream-of-consciousness tour of a grand piano's 88 keys. It's neither an artfully sewn together song-suite nor something carelessly strewn together; it's simply a tour de force that shows the singer's strengths in a four-minute tempest. The drama continues throughout the disc, culminating with the closing track "I Was Wrong," a string-and-piano ballad that shows both emotional depth and musical fearlessness. This division within her musical persona — the funky acoustic guitar strummer and the piano-pounding poet — occasionally resolves itself on a song like "Nursery Rhyme," but this tension makes Shahpari one to watch in the coming year.
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