Kate Earl's third studio-album, 2012's Stronger, finds the singer/songwriter eschewing the slick R&B production of her 2009 self-titled album and returning to the more rootsy, laid-back sound of her 2005 debut, Fate Is the Hunter. Although that album was itself the work of an all-star production/recording team featuring such luminaries as Mitchell Froom, Michael Penn, and others, it was an effective platform for showcasing Earl's naively sweet vocal style and earnest, folkie songwriting, with tunes seeming to flow effortlessly from her lips. It also had an organic, largely acoustic sound, lending an air of honesty and grit to Earl's somewhat wide-eyed, gamine hippie persona. Conversely, her 2009 major-label debut attempted to amp up her homespun, Los Angeles-via-small-town-Alaska-image with a more contemporary soul sound that favored brassy horn sections and funky beats. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't as believable or as intimate as Earl's previous work. Smartly, she returns to that more intimate, homespun sound on Stronger. A classicist at her core, Earl fills Stronger with traditional, guitar-based songs that, while perfectly suited for modern radio play, wouldn't sound out of place in the laid-back '70s California. It also doesn't hurt that Earl collaborated here with several like-minded country and folk-influenced musicians, including Brett Dennen and Blake Mills, whose presence reinforces the album's positive, communal spirit. To these ends, songs like the romantic anthem "I Don't Want to Be Alone" and the moody, sexy "Raven" are melodically infectious numbers that benefit from light organ touches, twangy guitar lines, and nicely harmonized backing choruses. This sort of Laurel Canyon-esque vibe brings to mind the work of Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne, imbuing Stronger with a tangible joy. Perhaps some of that joy also comes from the fact that Earl had a baby in the preceding years since her sophomore album, and songs like the title track and the shimmery, introspective "One Woman Army" find Earl ruminating on her newfound strength and sense of purpose as a mother and as an artist.
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AllMusic Review by Matt Collar