Saint In the City Records
Release Date: August 21, 2015
The old wisdom with songwriting is that if you can strip away “everything but the song” - presumably one voice and one instrument – and it still affects you, it’s a good song. In the singer-songwriter genre (weird that it’s a genre, but if you hear “a stripped down, singer-songwriter-y kind of thing,” you know exactly what that means), the bones of the songs come sharply into focus. For the writing to be memorable, the words need to resonate, the melodies need to stick, and all of the little non-specifics need to fall into place.
It makes it a very difficult style to work in. If you’re really good, and you’re well loved, life is good. If you’re really bad, someone will probably tell you quickly enough, and you can figure something. But the whole nature of the singer-songwriter business is that it’s wrapped up in things personal and close; the worst thing you can tell a solo artist playing their own songs is that their music is OK, that it’s interchangeable with something else, that it – and by extension, its writer - has no distinct identity.
All this makes it a very difficult genre to review, as well. Other than the size of the orchestra and the pedigree of the production (oh, and I guess the Grammy), what makes this latest stripped down, acoustic, singer-songwriter-y kind of thing from Daniel Pearson any different from, say, Beck’s last singer-songwriter-y kind of thing?
And of course, the answer is all of the little non-specific things. Daniel Pearson seems like a good guy, with some good things to say, and good enough melodies he uses to say them. It’s just all of the little things. They float around in the periphery, but they never feel like they get grounded in a way that makes them necessary. There are lots of strings all over the record, but they’re not particularly grounded in any memorable way. The electric guitar comes in right at that moment on most of the songs, but I can’t help but wonder if it needed to. It all just sounds – and I’m aware that this is a bit of a slap, and I feel honestly a little bad saying it – like a recording studio just needed to demonstrate that they could capture a specific handful of sounds, and these songs are, for the most part, the demos that came out. I’d love to hear this record pared down to nothing but the songs – it would be much, much stronger. He’s recorded two stronger records before, and that’s what makes me think he could easily right the ship of any list displayed here. This isn’t bad album by any means.
Occasionally, a melody like “As Deep As Love,” or the stomps and claps of “Circles,” or the tightly doubled first acoustic minute of “The Open Sea” will stand out for a moment, but the same instrumentation, crammed into the middle of the sonic spectrum, takes back over, and things tend to just run together.
I usually listen through albums a few times before I put down the first word of a review, and one of the tests on the first pass is to pay close attention to the last song in its context as a closer. What did the writer want to leave the listener with? The first and last songs are often two halves of a sort of thesis statement, particularly with this style, and the closer here, “Come Back Around,” is both a good finish and the simplest song of the bunch. It has the same meditative quality as much of the rest of the record (a simple fingerpicked pattern here, repeated without much affectation), but to its credit, it keeps it as simple as the song deserves. It’s enough to make me believe that the next time will be something special.
Reviewed by: Kent 1340