Parts & Labor

61WSCu7FptL._SS280By Letitia VanSant & the Bonafides. Self-released, 2015. $7/digital. Download available at letitiavansant.bandcamp.com.

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Letitia VanSant, the second (true) name of Friends Committee on National Legislation’s former program planner Sandy Robson, is a Baltimore native as well as a musician and songwriter. In this third album with its full-band treatment and shared songwriting with drummer Will McKindley-Ward, her storytelling and musical prowess, as well as her subject matter, have deepened and matured.

Parts & Labor spans the roots genres, drawing influences from folk, traditional, gospel, blues, R&B, country, and into the realm of indie rock, reminding us why the term “Americana” was invented: this is truly a fusion of American-born music genres. While these songs sound like they have grown straight from the life experiences of people and places whose stories are too seldom heard, there is a subtle poetry and deep thoughtfulness to the lyrics by VanSant and McKindley-Ward that reveals their larger perspective. More complex and layered, both musically and thematically than her previous albums, the songs in Parts & Labor represent a rare blue-collar perspective on the crises of our times, global and personal. As the liner notes say, “These songs proclaim that we are all much more than parts and labor to the machine of our economy.”

This is not background music. It is not always an easy listen either, though there are catchy choruses and gorgeous harmonies. Still, it is thick with meaning and story and demands careful attention and multiple listens for its real power to be felt.

VanSant does as veteran Quaker musician Carrie Newcomer always suggests: instead of writing about issues, she cracks open a window into the lives of people touched by them and lets us feel alongside those people. There are no pat answers and no self-congratulations here. We are given the gift of accompanying people as they struggle to make sense of their lives and, somehow, we hope it helps to illuminate our own.

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