Donna Ulisse – Breakin’ Easy


Produced by bluegrass luminary Doyle Lawson, vocalist and songwriter Donna Ulisse’s latest album Breakin’ Easy finds this honored singer and songwriter tackling twelve country and bluegrass tunes well worth the attentions of her talent. She has a marvelous voice that’s technically accomplished and more than capable of getting under the skin of any lyric, but she’s equally blessed with an excellent ear that guides her efforts to tailor her performances as closely as possible to the musical ideas structuring each track. Lawson’s control booth duties guidance gives the material even greater clarity than it might otherwise possess – banjo, guitar, light percussion, mandolin, and piano weave vibrant and balanced musical narratives that give Ulisse the needed platform to win us over vocally. Ulisse’s voice never competes or works in counterpoint to the music; instead, she seems supernaturally tuned in to each song’s individual needs and has a steady presence that fills even the most traditional performances with their own distinct character.

“Without Trouble Please” makes for a great opener thanks to how it introduces her bluegrass, country, and even blues influences in one entertaining package. There’s exuberance in Ulisse’s voice that pushes back against the hard times and bad luck that the song depicts; in another singer’s hands, this would have likely manifested itself as a darker and direr number, but Ulisse surprises us for the first time on the first song. “Drive This Cold Out of Me” is a fine country flavored ballad that she shows the full range of her emotive gifts with – the way her voice plays off with the acoustic guitar and strains of slide snaking their way through the arrangement makes for wonderfully understated dramatics. There’s some lovely, melancholy fiddle adding to the melodic strengths of “A Little Past Lonely”, another tune in the country music weeper mode that Ulisse handles with just right balance of emotiveness and finesse. She doesn’t go after these retro minded tracks with even a hint of irony; instead, they are loving revamps that her confidence carries as if she were the first performer to try her hand at such a thing.

The pensive sensitivity of “Baby Back Again” benefits enormously from the harmony vocals that come in at crucial points and Ulisse carefully modulates her performance to make great use of the song’s natural musical high points. Fiddle returns as an important instrument on the track “Till I Finally Let Go” and is joined by some tasteful swaths of steel guitar. There are some bluegrass elements at work in the song, but this is a track with a much stronger connection to classic country. Another ballad –style tune comes with “Whatever Winter Brings” and the gradual unfolding of this tune is one of the more memorable moments near the conclusion of Breakin’ Easy. This isn’t a challenging musical affair – it’s all arranged quite nicely and there’s an organic inevitability to much of the album that will find favor with many – but it does break away from the typical downcast blues despair that so many think this sort of music commonly embraces. Donna Ulisse has turned in a great recording here and, building on her many prior acclaimed albums, solidifies her position as one of the finest artists working in Americana, Bluegrass and roots music today.


Joshua Stryde