Unless you’re an artist who changes their stage name and is constantly reinventing their persona, you only get one chance at making a first impression with a debut album. And though All Blue is not technically Julianna Riolino’s first release as a solo artist (she dropped an eponymous EP as J.R. in 2019), it will inevitably go down as the moment an indelible star first stepped out from behind her employer’s long shadow. All Blue is not just a showcase of Riolino’s performance skills but her songwriting chops as well. Its sequencing is a thing of beauty: as each of its eleven songs plays out and you think you have Riolino figured out, she pulls out her palette and adds new hues and brush strokes that change your perception of the artist and her canvas.
Unabashedly anchored by folk rock, Americana, and country music, Riolino is unencumbered by any expectation those genres bring. Opening track “If I Knew Now” is unassuming in its arrangement; an acoustic guitar glides atop subtle keys as Riolino introduces the reflective central thesis of All Blue in her lyrics, a look back at all the choices she’s made and missed. “And every time I go to sleep / I think of all the lives we will lead,” she sings, repurposing the children’s bedtime prayer, Now I lay me down to sleep, “And if die before I wake / I’ll go out knowing that loving you was a mistake.” The deeper she gets into her thoughts, the more musical and complex the song becomes, fleshing out to the full band that’s lying in wait for their moment to chime in.
The breezy, effortless cool of “Isn’t It a Pity” is balanced by lyrics that reference “A wily old cadaver,” “Amoeba cradled shell,” and “An astral projection / Of our future in our rush.” It’s heady, if not heavy stuff, that serves as a delectable red herring for what’s to come. Reaching back some ten years into her past, Riolino and her band launch into “Lone Ranger” with the kind of zest and zeal reserved for a season classic — which it is, in a way. She says the song is the first she had ever played for family and friends, and it has all the hallmarks of a decades-old musical standard, the kind you assume will be the album’s highlight. But Riolino has other cards up her sleeve waiting to make your jaw drop.
“Queen of Spades” cuts straight to the country crooner lying in wait that Riolino hinted at in her turn on the Daniel Romano’s Outfit song “The Motions.” Like Queens Dolly and Loretta (God rest her soul), Riolino’s vulnerable and poignant words cut to the quick: “And yes I’m holding on to love / Like a peaceful alabaster dove / And who and I to you but a glove / To wear and then take off?” “Hark!” adds yet another shade to All Blue’s primarily monochromatic colour scheme. Harkening back to musical heroes like the Band and bandmates in the Outfit, it’s the pivotal moment when we, as listeners, genuinely bear witness to Riolino’s being in all its many splendours. As far as making first impressions go, I have no notes for Riolino except to say that she may have undersold herself with that title because All Blue is pure gold.
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