Edge of Success: Sam Behymer on The Voice

The VoiceTonight, at 8/7c, I will be watching The Voice.

NBC probably expects to net a fair number of 25-to-35-year-old males every week with their elaborate talent show, even if their ideal viewer is younger with longer hair.  But how can any self-respecting independent music blogger be caught tuning into such a commercialized, pop-centric circus of celebrity coaches and dramatized storylines?  I mean, at least American Idol has Ryan Seacrest… The Voice has to make do with Carson Daly!

But tonight, I’ve got something to cheer for.  It’s one of those rare moments when a beloved “pet” artist has the chance to break through to the mainstream.  The little hipster on my left shoulder is writing my triumphant, gloating speech full of “I called it first!” and other slop, but the affectionate fan on my right is eager to see just how big Sam Behymer can get.

The Story Up Till Now

When Behymer decided to audition for The Voice, she had already been making music for years.  Raised in Texas, she went off to California for college and decided to set up shop on the west coast.  Heartmouth, her first release, showed up on Bandcamp in 2009; a couple years and an EP later, she went on tour as a trio.  Soon after, her supporting cast expanded into a full backing band and donned the title “The Bowties.”  And by the summer of 2012, “Sam Behymer & the Bowties” would grace the cover of both a live album and This Bad Decision, the full-length follow-up to Heartmouth.

My personal introduction to Behymer was via a brilliant online mishmash of music streaming, social networking, and video gaming: thesixtyone.com.  Known fondly as T61, this site is still live but in need of upkeep.  (It amazes me that I haven’t dedicated a post to it, so that’s going on my to-do list.)  The point of this aside isn’t just to let my little hipster announce that I both “hearted” and “tipped” Behymer’s artist page all the way back in 2012, but to give my readers an actual inside scoop, since the demo recording of an original ditty called “Popstar” is, to my knowledge, only available on T61.

Capturing Our Ears

If you’re a fan of Lorde’s “Royals”, you’ll want to watch Behymer’s audition in the first stage of this season’s competition, known as “the blinds” because coaches must decide whether to invite a singer onto their team without seeing the singer.  (All they have to go on is… The Voice.  Get it?)  Adam Levine heard something special almost instantly, and Usher—the man who discovered Justin Bieber—was hooked in under 60 seconds.

The performance is gripping.  High and creaky lines dominate at the outset, only to be scattered by fiery bursts from deep in the gut as Behymer swings forcefully into the second chorus.  These two aspects maintain a fretful dance around each other as howls and mews drive the song to completion. The vocal command is imperfect, particularly as the slender 25-year-old’s low register is asked to provide lengthy sustains without vibrating, but in every measure the key pitches fall into place.

Sam Behymer - Bluebirds In

The cover of the Bluebirds In EP

The Sound and Style

Both stars-cum-judges locked onto Behymer as a “quirky” entrant, with the sort of character in her voice that would thrive in alternative pop, if that were a real genre.  Looking at her picture among the cast of artists involved this season, it’s an easy line to buy.  Yet as he chatted with the jittery, smiling Texan, who looked diminutive against the bold colors of the stage, Levine contrasted her vocals with those of Regina Spektor and Adele.

I could not approach the audition with fresh eyes, since I’ve been previously exposed to the Bowties and the solo work that predates them.  For me, Behymer’s style is more like Ingrid Michaelson without a ukelele.  But there is a deepness—a darkness, sometimes—in the lyrics she pens herself that is scary for even platinum-selling peers to attempt.  Wispy, she opines, “If you are brave / If you stand on the rocks / I will break your heart.”  It’s a notion Taio Cruz could get behind, but her meaning is more reminiscent of Death Cab for Cutie.

That message, of course, is only a few tracks separated from the hopelessly cute “Besides”, in which the singer catches cliches off guard, just barely convincing me that she’s not just convincing herself.  A more mature Behymer, with credible aggression, shows up on This Bad Decision tunes like “Melt Your Wings” and “The Snake”.  The Bowties are there too, enhancing each song with a genuine rhythm section and some guitar solos, which do more to spotlight the vocals than to distract from them.

The Next Big Thing?

For Sam Behymer, The Voice is a nonpareil opportunity to break through in music, and I hope eagerly that she does.  For America, now is the time to discover her.  Tonight’s segment will feature her “battling” another contestant in a duet format.  Since many of her competitors are more tailor-made for pop stardom, this contest could be rigged against her.  But it is Behymer’s unique sound that, coupled with strength and growth under celebrity tutelage, could set her apart and push her through to the finals.  We have to watch to find out.

Part of me is ashamed that I’ve been aware of this young talent for so long and haven’t invested in her material.  While Heartmouth has rotated occasionally through my daily playlists and even now sits helplessly adrift in my massive Amazon wishlist, I’ve been too much of a cheapskate to actually pay this particular artist for her works.  (Although that T61 “tip” was real money!)  But if you’re into buying low, now might be a great time to pick up some CDs from the Bandcamp page.  Whether tomorrow or next week, this girl is on the edge of success and about to fall into it.

Dan and Brian from Earn This now have a film review site and podcast:

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