This is the second time out for Stewart, a California singer/songwriter who has also been an actress and television producer and whose musical endeavours have been likened to Sheryl Crow. Working with producer Greg Critchley and recording in the famed Sunset Sound Studio, she has delivered eleven songs of strident roots tinged rock. The players include veteran LA sessionier Marty Rifkin and guitarist Joshua Grange. Stewart has had a hand in writing the bulk of these songs, written following the death of her father. They are reflective in mood. The majority of the songs are largely drawn from Stewart’s look at her own and the lives of those around her.
Given that premise, the music is largely upfront with Stewart’s voice front and centre. With no lyric sheet to refer to, the songs largely register around the choruses. Black and Blue features both pedal steel and banjo, but is not a song that you would categorise as in any way traditional. It should however appeal to those who might have enjoy Sheryl Crow’s music, including her most recent album or some of the current crop of Nashville artists. I Lied is a slow song which features some atmospheric slide guitar from Blake Mills. Another songs that broods is the regretful A Little More that deals sadness, memory and loss over the full-on sound that features some fine guitar and a dominant rhythm section. The beat is again the power behind We’ll Learn, another song that is driven by the solid performance of the players and a chorus of “all you need is love, love, love” underpinning the nature of the learning experience.
Love as redemption would seem to be an enduring part of Stewart’s outlook, even if the songs often take a more realistic approach. Evelyn is a song about someone who did her best for others while Had it All is about making a difference when you had it all at one time. This is taken at a slightly less full on sound and works well. The album closes with Underneath, a song about being stronger that many see on the surface and is again delivered with a strong voice and full backing that is the hallmark of the sound throughout.
What It Is is an album that will not really appeal to those who prefer something more traditional or subtle, but those who like their music to rock in a raw way with hints of roots rock may enjoy. There is a certain groove to Stewart’s vocals that has also seen her compared to Bonnie Raitt, perhaps more as an artist who is continuing the direction of artists like Crow and Raitt before her, without emulating either. In the end What it Is is what it is.