Album Review: Tonina Saputo – ‘St. Lost’
A second album that is both intriguing and complicated.
Following her 2015 debut King’s Queen, Tonina Saputo takes listeners for a smooth ride on the soul train with her sophomore album St. Lost. What the album lacks in synth, autotune and other digital sound, it makes up in saxophone, impressive riffs and authenticity. It must be noted, though, that Tonina is not a jazz artist. Tonina said in a 2018 interview with NPR, “I truly believe folk music is the heart of people, the music of the people. That’s what I consider myself — a folk musician.” Whether it’s heard and categorized as folk or jazz, it’s undeniable that St. Lost is a touching work worthy of praise and repetition.
Tonina comes from a noteworthy musical background that’s shaped her into an artist with a voice and talent of someone wise beyond her years. She once led the bass sections of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra and the Missouri All State Orchestra. Her interpretation of “Historia de un Amor,” written by Carlos Almarán, even appeared on former president Barack Obama’s 2018 top songs list.
A good album can set a scene and an even better one can take you there. The harp-like guitar playing, cool bass, and various instrumental sections across the twelve tracks make for perfect beachside sitting on an Italian vacation or for intriguing entertainment during dinnertime. The music and her vocals are strong, but not overbearing or busy. That isn’t to say that St. Lost should be idly heard, though. The characters, stories and settings that Tonina creates through her music are both thoughtful and complicated.
The album’s opener “Monarch” may not fully catch your attention on the first listen. With each subsequent listen, though, you’ll come to appreciate both the instrumentation and the layered harmonies that lay underneath. There are only two lines, but they successfully set the tone for an album about transformation, family, and love: Monarch butterfly / Watch as I pass you by.
Following “Monarch” is one of the album’s standouts, and not-so-coincidentally its namesake. The first 22 seconds of “St. Lost” seem to hint at some melancholic tune or dramatic ballad. The song instead takes us in a different direction. The mood becomes slightly more upbeat with saxophone playing that can only be described as erratic (in the best way possible) compared to the tone of the rest of the song. Tonina repeats the line I wanna hold your hand but what’s the cost? throughout the song, signaling both enthusiasm and uncertainty about a developing relationship.
“Nina” is another standout and the most likely candidate to get stuck in your head. The song opens with heavy bass, drums and guitar before she sings the opening line Nina walks with a knife in her back. The saxophone playing here creates the same mysterious, but elegant person in a jazz club kind of scene that makes the Pink Panther theme song so captivating. It’s mysterious and sultry. It’s what old movies are made of.
In true Tonina fashion, “Controla” and “Esperanza” are sung almost or entirely in Spanish. Regardless of your Spanish speaking abilities, these two tracks are beautiful enough to transcend language. “Controla” is lullaby-esque, whereas “Esperanza” includes a bit of jazzed up Spanish guitar reminiscent of Santana’s “Maria Maria.”
“Kite in the Wind, written by Joseph Ferber, brings back just enough groove with solo saxophone and guitar sections to get your head bobbing.
“Make You Happy” is an upbeat song in which Tonina touches on a relationship that didn’t work out. “Mercy” is light and simple, perfect for a slow sway back and forth on the dance floor. While they aren’t bad, these two songs fall short in terms of lasting impact compared to the others.
Tonina’s vocals take the front seat in the sentimental “Ma and Pa.” She outlines her relationship with her parents over subtle instrumentation, and presents listeners with a series of questions that reveal an emotional and physical disconnect between child and parent: I wonder what they’re doing right now / If they love each other the same / Do they claim me as their daughter / I’ll still love them anyway.
The final song, “Myself” featuring Davie Napalm and written by Syrhea Conaway, is “the other” in “one of these things is not like.” The hard hitting opening is attention seeking and the rest of the instrumentation is almost busy enough to drown out Tonina’s voice, but not quite. Napalm’s rap is a refreshing change of pace and makes for a strong closer. Placed anywhere else, the song could have been a distraction from the groovier tracks.
Tonina’s musical growth from King’s Queen to St. Lost is more than apparent in this finished product. Unlike her debut, this album feels more cohesive and mature. It’s possible that this shift in quality could be the result of newfound creative control. She said in the same 2018 NPR interview, “I’m completely in charge.”
With a solid second full-length album under her belt, Tonina will continue to solidify her place in the music industry and make herself known to genre deniers, (people whose musical interests span across genre who also reject the notion of boxing things in) groove-enthusiasts and easy listening appreciators alike.
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