(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

CD review - The Brian St. John Quartet, Songs About Other People (2010)

The Brian St. John Quartet's Songs About Other People has a timeless feel. Wisps of late '60s jam and early '70s folk rock permeate these laid back tracks, alongside a modern indie rock sensibility. A good song gets your feet tapping, but a great one inspires you to sing along. BSJQ hit one of those moments early in the album with Velvet Floor Blues. The shuffle snare and sparse blues licks catch the ear before the track builds. Loudspeaker vocals and light horn touches come in to set the hook. By the chorus, it sounded like alt-traditionalists X had inherited some heavier blues influences. "Oh, she's gone. Gone, gone, gone..."

Moving forward, Renaissance Man starts out like a Blues Traveler tune, but with a strong folk rock vibe. The combination is typical of the album: modern and retro, catchy hooks with a more interesting instrumentation. The woodwinds add a lot to the arrangement. The Blues Traveler feel is even stronger on the jam fest of 87->95, although it's tempered with a touch of Rolling Stones. It's another relaxed, feel good song.

Every track has something intriguing: either an interesting blend of styles, exception playing (Randy Sabo has some wonderful bass lines), or choruses that lodge in your ear. Brian St. John's vocals are very restrained. He's a little hoarse and given to half whispering his lines sometimes, but his songwriting style favors that delivery.

The only questionable track is Townie Girl, which started out as my favorite song. The jazzy blues groove is sweet, the horns are moody perfection, and St. John's voice is squarely in his comfort zone. The first stumble is the mood-killing electric guitar solo. The volume jump, wailing tone, and contrasting reverb are jarring, like the guitar was sloppily punched in. If the entire track had built from that moment, it might have worked. Instead, the mood recovers somewhat with the following horn solo. Then there's a beautifully tentative, wistful piano fill (at about 4:40) that's short but elegant. The other poor decision was to overlay the extended instrumental section with storm sounds. The jazzy jam stands well on it's own; the sound effects add a slight cheese factor that make it hard to take seriously. This live version doesn't have the piano, but it does show how the song can shine.

Despite my gripes with Townie Girl, Songs About Other People is a good album. The lineup plays well together and the songwriting is solid. Like a good amber ale, there's plenty of flavor without attacking the palate.

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