When Howling Bells released what would become their final album, Heartstrings, in 2014, it was missing the ravishing, dark rock romance that bewildered audiences in Sydney back in 2006. A string of side projects later and two indelible records from the band’s frontwoman and songwriting linchpin Juanita Stein and we have arrived at the place we have all been longing for. Although not for the reasons we had hoped for.
Juanita Stein’s Snapshot began as a reaction to the sudden death of her father. A music man himself, Peter Stein’s contribution to alt-country music through his band The Cahoots in Perth and his songwriting work, for the likes of The Blind Boys of Alabama, placed an indelible mark on Juanita’s music compass.
With initial writing occurring while her family scrambled to understand the incurable disease acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), and recorded in the throes of grief, Snapshot became the only sure thing Stein could rely on. A lighthouse in the dark.
The playlists she made for her father to listen to between hospital bed conversations, about life, death and the minutiae in between, featured JJ Cale, John Prine, George Jones, and Jimmy Webb. You can hear those storytelling greats on Snapshot.
Stream Juanita Stein’s Snapshot:
Juanita Stein in an instinctive writer, her words are a punch in the gut if you remove the music. On tracks like “Reckoning” and “Hey Mama” it’s as if she’s conjured words from a higher power and placed them on a blanket of broken glass and sweet apple pie. She cuts and nourishes all at once.
“Everyone’s riding on this same on train / It’s gonna take us home one of these days / And I’ll be with you, we can sing the blues, sing the blues.”
Album single “L.O.T.F” is Juanita Stein’s ode to her homeland and the sad bitterness it now represents after her loss. Its percussion drills into your chest (the sad bitterness), but the guitar line recorded by her brother Joel acts as a proffered branch over quicksand, a lifeline reminder of Australia’s beauty. “I was raised in the land of the free,” she sings.
Check out Juanita Stein’s clip for ‘L.O.T.F’:
Now very much settled in Brighton, London, the album was produced by Ben Hillier (Blur, Doves, Depeche Mode) at his studio Agricultural Audio. Final track “In The End” is a glorious display of Hillier’s contribution. Juanita Stein sings like an artist enlightened, perhaps led into a space she’d been holding back from. Radiant, all-knowing and rustic in its country-pop leanings, the closer feels like it was written the day she reached stage five of the grief and loss framework: acceptance.
The collection is a time capsule; its ten tracks form a frozen lake, shimmering like glass and holding tight an unrelenting body of water underneath. Very much unlike her previous albums America (2017) and Until The Lights Fade (2018) Snapshot is a letter of dedication to the life of her father. As any good letter does, it achieves moments of tension and release, moments of sheer disbelief and cognisance. It stays with you long after putting it down, and it beckons you back time and time again.
SNAPSHOT TRACK LISTING
5. Hey Mama
1. From Peace
2. The Mavericks
4. Take It Or Leave It
5. In The End