Review: Satori Stream – Love by Numbers E.P.

Satori Stream - Love by Numbers

Right, from the outset I have to state that I have done a bit of PR work for Satori Stream in the past. Now, don’t get me wrong. This is not some sort of lame attempt at journalistic integrity on my part – my integrity went out the window years ago! No, this is more a comment about my experiences with that “Cosmic Other” that is SatoriStreamWorld (Tm). Let me explain…

When you step into a room with Satori’s singer-songwriter Martina Keane, when you sit at a table to talk to her, when you greet her in passing at a gig, you enter a different, wonderful dimension. Suddenly, all the rules are gone; there is a disconnect between what you know is real and true and integral and the world that you suddenly find yourself being subsumed into.

This is not a bad thing. There is something direct and innocent and childlike about that world that you enter. Plus, there’s an immediacy in the way Martina expresses herself that makes what she says seem almost tangible, palpable even. You just find that your sense of cynicism, your critical analysis of the world, even your logic are somehow just… abandoned.

One has this sense that things “just happen” for Satori. Like some Kerouac-ian splurge there is intent… and then result. You end up wondering what internal machinations (if any) could bring any Satori project to fruition, how that process could have possibly worked, and how Satori could have gotten it so right. Yet they do.

In truth, it doesn’t work ALL the time, but there is an honesty of intent and a fundamental search behind those times when it doesn’t. These facts make the mistakes more understandable and, in some sense, justifiable. However this does kind of leave you wishing for one more seam of solid structure that would resolve the “whole” nicely. But then, that would not be Martina Keane, and that would not be Satori Stream.

And so, if the above paragraphs seem like a paean of praise, or lovelorn letter of sorts to Martina and the band, then I guess in one sense it is. Satori Stream are a guilty pleasure, an alternative, gentle beguiling, ramshackle world that you simply love. And it’s a world that works wonderfully, but you are left struggling to understand how and why. For this poor Aspie boy, the stream of satorial consciousness is something that I willingly dip my toes into, letting the waters ooze warmly around my feet and surrendering to its loveliness, but only if I can occasionally return to slightly surer shores.

And that, my friends, is also an amazingly accurate description of how I feel about Satori Streams new E.P, “Love By Numbers”.

In true “On The Road” fashion, Satori’s road trip to this point reads like pulp fiction stream of consciousness mush. Both Martina and sister Paula were regular performers from an early age, taking part in competitions the length and breadth of the country – competitions that saw them eventually singing in some of Ireland’s most prestigious venues such as the National Concert Hall and The Gaiety Theatre.

On entering into the “grown-up” world both Martina and Paula took on regular jobs. During this time, Martina’s only outlet to perform was singing in Wexford’s annual Singing & Swinging Pubs competition, a competition that saw her win many awards. And once the event was over for another year, she would find herself longing for it to come around again as soon as possible.

2008 was when things really started to happen for the sisters. In an effort to capture some of the magic of performing, Martina joined a local musical society. But it just wasn’t the same. She was then encouraged by a friend and mentor to start expressing herself. “The songs are in you. Write what’s in your heart.” the friend kept saying. And so Martina wrote her first song.

It was a life defining moment. A few nights later Martina walked into singer songwriter club unannounced, approached the organiser and asked if she could sing that first song, right there, unaccompanied. Five years later she still proudly boasts that she has only ever sung three cover songs since.

And so enamoured was she with the writing process that she rarely slept. “It was the happiest time of my life. Writing each song was like a party.” she later said. “From that moment on I would never be on my own. These were my babies”.

With a “go with the flow” abandon that you will no doubt have probably start to recognise, Martina followed her mentor friend to South Africa and promptly launched into the process of recording an album of her material. “It was a very naïve move.”, she later told me. “I had no idea about the recording process. But we learnt a lot.”

Later out of the stalls, but equally talented, Paula began to flourish as a songwriter, and brought her own adventurous and enthralling mix of music to Satori Stream. Bass player Leo was next to join the fledgling group, a “creative force that pushes the band along”, followed closely by drummer Tommy Bates.

Martina Keane & Leo Bates - Photo copyright Pat Jackman

Satori Stream’s EP “Love By Numbers” represents the culmination of those five years of growth and exploration, and a lifetime of rich experience.

“Dreaming By” is the opening track of the EP. As a sound designer I am drawn to new, experimental and alternative sounds, new ways of presenting music. The best of modern contemporary folk does exactly that. Take for example the genre redefining “I Could Read The Sky” by Sean nós singer, Iarla Ó Lionáird. In a move that had traddies beards quaking in their Guinness (sorry), Iarla brought out an impossibly Irish sounding album that manages to contain synths and samplers and (heavens forbid) no small smidgen of more experimental elements. And it was all the better for it.

“Dreaming By” opens similarly, with a distant, heavily processed violin (played by The Frames stalwart Colm Mac Con Iomaire), sounding for all the world like a recording from the 1920’s of a forgotten overture. What follows is a round sounding acoustic guitar, a few gorgeously disconnected piano notes and THAT voice – Martina, full and present in your speakers, urging some small young soul to “go to sleep, my baby”.

Martina’s voice does deserve the fullest of praise: lovely, unconventional, quiet, melodic and tuneful, effectively wringing out every cent of the emotion that she has invested in her lyrics. However, it would be churlish to the point of sinning not to mention Paula’s amazing vocal contributions. Her harmonies have the understated dignity of a musician who is comfortable within themselves and who merely wants to serve the song. There is one long section where she sings the lyrics on one note, for gods sake, and it is beautifully and more stunningly effective for that. And that doesn’t even begin do justice to some of the other harmonisational gymnastics she pulls off in other parts of the same song.

The songs repeating chorus of sorts breaks into a fine, swing-like vibe, with understated support by Leo and Tommy on bass and drums respectively.

Space should be any bands invisible, ever-present member. The temptation within every musician starting off is to play every note possible within a song. And that temptation within a small band that consists merely of drums, double bass, piano and acoustic guitar can be even stronger. Satori Stream do not fall into this trap. They are understanding musicians who hold back, lending space to the music in order for it to work.

The recording is clean and present. One might be tempted to sit back and imagine the band simply sitting in front of a handful of mics. However there are little touches, like the magnificently huge, yet subtly used reverb on the voices towards the end of each chorus, that fleetingly imbue the whole with a larger production sound – a wonderful, and occasional reminder that there is nothing easy or accidental about this recording.

In “Dreaming By”, the breaks and middle-eights are not quite as successful as the rest of the song, but it’s beyond this poor hacks limited musical understanding to suggest why this is so. They seem a little uneasy – quirky admittedly, and beautiful certainly, with Colm’s violin providing a melodic counterpoint during the middle section and Paula’s piano providing a lovely, almost “broken glass” solo later in the song. Maybe I lack the musical nous to understand the structure. However both the central section and the end just seem to sail ever so slightly passed a satisfying resolution. In all, a minor criticism really. The song is beautiful, simple as.

A song that is far more successful on the structure front is the next track on the EP, “Love By Numbers”. And I freely admit that this song has replaced my earlier repeat play earworm by a considerable margin.

Opening with a simple, quiet, assured acoustic guitar, Martina’s voice slips lovingly in. As the lyrics begin: “One, two. I feel in love with you”, you may be tempted to think that you know where this song is going. But we ain’t entering into any schmaltzy love zone here. The next line jars you instantly into reality: “Three, four. Your little bedroom whore.”…

This is not a trite love song. This song is real. It is visceral. It is not the adolescent imaginings of a first kiss – all soft and gentle. No, this is noses clumsily bashing off each other. It is the hard reality of two bodies coming together and creating something transitory and beautiful. You know this relationship – you were in it. And in that way this song is the most successful of the EP by far, simply because you cannot help but empathise. Nothing, not the musicianship or production, gets in the way of Martina telling you straight to your heart that “the way you touch my face, the way your fingers race, are pieces of heaven”.

I will resist the urge to dive deeply into a quagmire of overused superlatives. Just… be this song. Owe yourself one moment of abject beauty today, and let it be this song. It. Is. Stupendous.

Su Sueno is the third track on the EP. Again this song has a far more satisfyingly structured, again with sparse effective instrumentation, a soaring chorus that is utterly lovely, and a wonderfully discordant piano ending to the song that raises hackles of jealousy for a musician that brave and that observant. Really minor quibbles on the mix, Paula’s voice matching Martina’s in volume during the chorus would have sent this song through the roof, as would a little of that lovely big reverb that brought out the best in “Dreaming By”. But it is, again, a most beautiful piece of music.

The final song on the EP is “Fantasy Lover”, a “Man With The Child In His Eyes” like story of a dream lover visiting a young woman. A fine song that suffers because of two factors; one is the strong calibre of the previous three tracks, the other is that the songs, while not necessarily similar sounding, are similar in tone.

All four tracks on this album represent the quieter, more reflective side of Satori. And anyone who has seen Satori Stream will know that they generally mix their softer material with sets of far more up-tempo Americana type contemporary folk blues. An argument could be made for including one of these songs as a contrasting track, instead of “Fantasy Lover”. I, I have to admit, am on the fence on that one. I do feel it’s a shame that a fine song like “Fantasy Lover” should all but disappear in the glare of the light from the other three songs. However, would a more up tempo track have sat as easily with the three other gentler tracks on this EP? I don’t know, frankly. You decided.

As a sideline, I realise that I do mention the mastering of recordings quite often in The Wexfordian. If you are unaware of this vastly misunderstood studio technique (as indeed you should), but want to find out more, read the box-out below.

“Love by Numbers” is a wonderful example of clear, effective mastering. It sounds as good on a laptop as it does on speakers. There is a clarity and a spaciousness that would not normally have come from a set of recordings completed in different studios, and recorded at widely different times. Let the sound on this album be a lesson to all musicians who get a friend or a studio engineer (or no one at all) to master their material. It matters, and you can hear the results on this EP.

Recently I stuck up Satori Streams lovely “Love By Numbers” video on Facebook. An ex-pat friend of mine exclaimed “Are THEY from Wexford?”. Yes. Yes they are. Unbelievable, but true. But great things do come from Wexford, and this EP is one truly gorgeous example. Buy it and step gently into SatoriStreamWorld (Tm). It is beguiling. You will not want to leave.

Satori Streams EP “Love by Numbers” is available from:

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(This article originally appeared in the April 2013 edition of The Wexfordian magazine, and is reprinted with kind permission.)

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