Wednesday, August 27, 2008

CD REVIEW: The Last Domino's "Seconds"

Label: Self-Released

Singer-songwriter, easy-listening folk rock. The sub-genre, popularized by such artists as Five For Fighting, that features songs about love and heartbreak supported by a sonic wall of pop guitar arrangements. People seem to either love it or hate it. For better AND worse, The Last Domino’s debut album, Seconds, falls into this musical category. At least most of the time. While the majority of its songs will please fans of this style of music and do nothing for those who hate it, there are a few numbers that show that The Last Domino has a little something extra on his Dashboard.

One thing that sets The Last Domino (AKA John Orr) apart from most is that he is a multi-instrumentalist, and aside from a few extra vocals on the record’s last track “The Last Joke You’ll Ever Play on Me,” he is responsible for every sound listeners will hear on Seconds. This is impressive because we’re not talking about just a guitar solo record. Guitar, bass, keyboard, alto sax, drums, and other percussion can all be heard at various points on the album. And after listening to Seconds, it’s easy to tell that Orr is accomplished at each of them. In fact, two of the album’s best tracks are instrumentals. The island funk that is “Summer Flame” and the saxophone-fueled “Autumn Twilight” are both welcomed additions to the record. He’s a good vocalist too, and between his voice and his musical arrangements, he shows on the album that he understands this style of music and how to create it effectively.

As said, most of the songs that are found on Seconds are exactly what you’d expect on an easy-listening folk rock record. The qualities of these songs range from subpar to very good. Only one song on the record, “Na├»ve,” with a droning chorus that is a real eye-roller, warrants skipping. The rest of the songs in this style should be completely listenable for fans of the sub-genre. “Washed Ashore” features a nice wavy musical arrangement that supports its high-tide heartbreak lyrics, and “Clean Break” is just a wonderfully written “love hurts” song with both great music and solid words built around the great metaphor of a broken bone. The best of these songs though is the title track. It breaks the usual subject matter of such songs, telling the tragic story of a troubled girl who is jailed and soon after, commits suicide. The song’s main character, her brother, hears her final words to him in his head and holds them in his heart. This number and others show that Orr can craft lyrical gems that those who appreciate an easy-listening style of music will undoubtedly appreciate.

However, perhaps the best songs on Seconds find The Last Domino breaking the boundaries of his sub-genre. Three of its tracks have broad-appeal that should please all kinds of music fans. “Born to Runner-Up” uses a sports metaphor to tell a musical tale of the eternal nice-guy loser. It’s a lot of fun, and goodness knows there are thousands of us nice guys out there who can relate. It may be about losing, but the song itself is a winner, as is “You Don’t Know the Half.” Songs don’t get much more clever than this story of a man with a split personality that murders his lover. Strangely upbeat, Orr even changes vocals for the man’s two personalities. Dark, yes, but the song is a blast… no pun intended. And finally, another dark-yet-lively song, “Last Call,” is the biggest highlight on the entire album. It’s a rollicking good time of a number about a man who drinks himself to death after losing his love, and has bar room “hit” written all over it. Thank goodness, as I think most of us have had enough of “Friends in Low Places.”

Are these three songs enough to make those who are not fans of singer-songwriter folk buy the album? Probably not. Most of the album is very sub-genre specific. However, there is a lot to like about The Last Domino. The guy can write, and the guy can play… and he can do both pretty well. It’ll be interesting to hear how his next album will sound. In the meantime, enjoy Seconds: a great easy-listening treat… with a little extra spunk!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

CD REVIEW: Mark Huff's "Gravity"

Label: Exodus Records

“Smokin cigarette butts from a dirty ashtray.” Builds a mood right away, doesn’t it? Great songwriters who can pull off lines such as this usually have no trouble establishing mood not only in their songs, but also sometimes throughout entire albums. While I wouldn’t necessarily call it a concept album, Mark Huff’s Gravity is one of most interesting “love” albums I have heard in some time. Even though most of its songs deal with heartbreak, by giving its tunes a lyrical and musical hard, bar room bluesy edge, Huff delivers a record that never becomes too sappy… even for the tough guys. What is that you ask? A heartbreak album… for men? Hard to believe, but it’s true!

The music of Gravity is a big reason that the record is so successful. Huff’s vocals on the album resemble Ryan Adams’ at his smokiest. The music reminds listeners of Adams as well. This should be expected considering Huff enlisted musicians who have worked with Adams (Brad Pemberton on drums and Bucky Baxter on guitar) to help him record the album. Dan Baird, from Georgia Satellites fame, also lends his musical chops on bass to help complete the album’s outstanding sound.

It is difficult to label that sound though. With the exception of the wonderful “Wrong or Right”, the country influence that marks Ryan Adams’ work is largely missing from Huff’s Gravity. However, the record still seems to feel Southern-flavored, all while having the effective pop-sensibility of Matchbox Twenty, just with more guitar and attitude. Whiskey and Cigarette Pop perhaps? It really doesn’t matter how one describes it though because it works. Musically strong from start to finish, Huff’s album is a sonic treat for fans of all rock and country sub-genres.

Perhaps the greatest highlight of the Gravity experience is its lyrical content. It does not take long for listeners to realize that Mark Huff is a very able songwriter, as the album features an extremely strong first half. The opener, “Easy to Love You,” is a great pop number about a man struggling to love his ideal woman. Following are two great rock and roll blues songs, “In the Dark” and the superior “Digging a Hole.” The latter reminds listeners of a Mark Lanegan tune and features a wonderful central metaphor that will captivate any heartbroken soul. The excellence continues through the next three tracks. The title track is the kind of song that Rob Thomas hasn’t written in years, the ghostly “Talkin Insomnia Blues” takes listeners back to Laneganville, and “Sleep it Away” is a song to which anyone can relate. Who hasn’t wanted to sleep away a bad day… or week? Huff realizes this as a songwriter, and captures the feeling perfectly in words. While there is some dropoff in the second half of the record, there really is only one track (“Killing Me Slowly”) that could be considered filler. The remaining tracks are still solid listens, and two of them, the previously mentioned “Wrong or Right” and the lyrical masterpiece that is the tearjerker “Something That I Broke,” are outstanding.

The biggest question that arises about the album is why it took so long to release it. His previous album released almost a decade ago, we can only hope that we won’t have a similar wait before Huff graces us with his brand of “Whiskey and Cigarette Pop” again. However, besting this effort will not likely prove to be an easy task for him. Like the woman Mark Huff discusses in the opener, it truly is easy to love Gravity… and listeners don’t even have to “try like hell” to do it!