The best thing that happened to The Stellas was not winning the recently-completed second season of CMT’s Can You Duet. As fourth place finishers, Canadian couple Marylynne and Brad Stella stand to reap the benefits of major national exposure without being locked into a deal with Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records, an association which would likely not be in their best artistic interest anyway.
As evinced by the self-titled digital EP they released about a month before their Can You Duet debut, The Stellas are actually far too cool to be labelmates to Taylor Swift. It would be a disservice to shoehorn them into that money-centered, artistically-stilted environ.
That’s not to say that they don’t have commercial potential, because they do. In particular, the two songs on which Brad takes the lead (“Ridin’ in the Back Seat,” “Make It Last”) could easily be mainstream hits; the former, a surprisingly affecting spin on the theme of watching kids grow up, was performed by the duo on the show. Brad sings in a hushed, slightly raspy style often favored by rockers gone country.
The real surprise is Marylynne, who sounds a bit stronger on record than she did on the show (perhaps a matter of nerves, which the judges mentioned a few times). She’s a folk songbird at heart, so her contributions take the duo’s sound in somewhat more of an alt direction, more Patty Griffin than Reba McEntire. On The Stellas, she proves herself a capable and impressively versatile vocalist: piercingly honest on “Fine Soon,” jaunty on “Life of Riley,” locked and loaded on “The Game,” broken on “Woe Is Me.” With Brad joining in on harmonies, this hardly sounds like a debut EP, much less the debut of an act you would discover on a television singing competition. There’s a whole lot of confidence – and competence – on display here.
Which isn’t to say that there isn’t some room for improvement. In particular, it sometimes seems like The Stellas have found a cool groove in search of a slightly more memorable lyric. While that might cause songs to bleed together over the course of a full-length offering, it’s less of a problem on this abbreviated set – which is, as far as digital EPs go, one of the best I’ve heard.
While The Stellas have mainstream potential, I think it’s potential for crossing over to the mainstream rather than an indication that they should live there permanently; I hope they’ll find a home at a supportive indie that will shop singles to radio while allowing them to do their own thing (the Joey + Rory Sugar Hill deal, if you will). As The Stellas EP makes clear, they’ve already got themselves figured out pretty well. No focus groups necessary.