Shana Cleveland: Manzanita [Album Review]

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Shana Cleveland
Hardly Art Records [2023]

Manzanita is the common name for a kind of small evergreen tree endemic to California which has strong medicinal properties. It is a fitting title for the newest solo album from La Luz’s Shana Cleveland as the record displays a gorgeousness that will instantly change your state of mind in one setting. The lyrics, the instrumentation and the delivery all combine to connect you to nature with Cleveland’s personal journey that is driven by motherhood, surviving life, the insect world, ghosts, and evil spirits.

The opening track, “A Ghost” is really the only track you need to hear to understand the transcending qualities of Cleveland’s floating voice. The Mellotron-backed track features her voice out front and the intricate strumming of her guitar all sits above a whisper while still being quiet. It is this quality of her vocal performance that will have hanging onto each lyric for Manzanita’s full 38 minutes. On “Faces In The Firelight,” you hear Cleveland take the instrumentation to another level, as the album has a bigger overall footprint compared to her earlier solo outings. This is by design as Manzanita features Abbey Blackwell (Alvvays, La Luz) on the bass; Olie Eshleman on pedal steel; and her life partner, Will Sprott, adds keyboards, dulcimer, glockenspiel, and harpsichord. On other tracks like “Gold Tower,” her soft vocal layers swirl around your ears and leave you wanting to hear more.

If you have been a fan of La Luz you already know the appeal here but Manzanita does still mirror some similarities to the band’s more subdued 2021 self-titled record compared to the group’s earlier indie rock outings. The difference here is the personal nature of the content as the songs were all written while Shana was pregnant or shortly after her son’s birth. Cleveland is also a breast cancer survivor as she had successful treatment for a diagnosis at the start of 2022. That emotion and drive behind Manzanita takes these songs to a higher level and makes the listening experience surreal as the work now represents Cleveland’s best album to date.

“A Ghost” / “Faces In The Firelight” / “Gold Tower”

Kristin Hersh / Angel Olson / Shannon Lay

Oh Man, Cover The Ground (2015) | La Luz: La Luz (2021) | La Luz: Floating Features (2018) / La Luz: Weirdo Shrine (2015) / La Luz: It’s Alive (2013)

Official Website | Instagram | Bandcamp | Hardly Art Records

Christopher Anthony
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