By: Steve Hochman
About five years ago or so, Becky Stark stood on stage at a small club near Hollywood, wearing a vaguely vintage dress. She plucked a guitar and sang, winsomely, of faith and love and the longing that goes with both, with all the innocence and openness of a young Sunday school teacher who, on a lark, had decided to step up on open mic night at a cool coffee house. Well, it being hipster central and all, the first reaction was reflexive: This has got to be an act. Well, shame on me.
Today, Stark fronts the band Lavender Diamond. And there's still no indication in their new second album, "Incorruptible Heart" that this is anything less than real. If this is an act, if she's playing a character called Becky Stark, then she's the greatest actress in the world. And while her bio notes that she was a semiotics major at Brown, there's not even a hint of subtext in any of this. It's all out in the open. And it's all boundless love. When she wants to heal her broken heart, she wants to heal everyone's broken heart.
She shares this love, this enveloping warmth, via a largely vibrato-less voice, stretching out notes with remarkable breath control, sometimes a smoke-free version of '50s star Julie London, sometimes a smokier Anne Murray, perhaps. And even repurposing the elastic bass pattern of Lou Reed's jaded "Walk On the Wild Side" for the wide-eyed innocence of "I Don't Recall" seems totally guileless, totally genuine.
Stark has had various roles and settings in which she's performed. In addition to solo and Lavender Diamond, she's in the delightfully harmony-heavy trio the Living Sisters with Inara George and Eleni Mandell and has been a touring member of the Decemberists and She & Him. But it's Lavender Diamond that gives her the broadest musical pallet. The band is built around her partnership with composer-keyboardist Steve Gregoropolous, who helps craft the music in increasingly varied and always entrancing ways. And with OK Go's Damian Kulash producing the new album, they keep the sound somehow both dreamy and grounded.
Often as not, there are echoes of '50s and '60s romantic pop, with more than a few bricks from Phil Spector's wall of sound. But there are also some winning departures, most notably the dance-music experiment "Light My Way." Burbling electronics echo the Giorgio Moroder-Donna Summer landmark "I Feel Love" before opening up into pure '80s pop sunshine.
A few days ago, Stark stood on stage, with her four Lavender Diamond bandmates, at another L.A. club, wearing a vaguely sophisticated, sequined dress. Leaving no doubt that she is still the same person, she preluded the music with an earnist declaration.
"I'd like to dedicate this concert to planet Earth, the most beautiful planet that ever lived," she said.
But even Earth isn't enough. One highlight of "Incorruptible Heart" is the song "All the Stars," which reaches out to the entirety of the universe with an embrace that goes beyond lyrics, Stark after the first lines, gives her feelings over to a wordless flight of her celestially pure soprano. Pure heart. Pure spirit. Pure Becky Stark.