**Gavin DeGraw @ House Of Blues, (312) 923-2000, on Nov. 6
One of the predominant music scenes in 2003 has been the presence of the male singer/songwriter. While they may not be enjoying the same level of attention as post-boy-band member Justin Timberlake or tattooed and pierced faux punk rockers Good Charlotte, they are out there and they are making good music.
In title and in sound, 'Delicate,' the opening track of Shortlist Music Prize for Artistic Achievement winner Damien Rice's debut album O (Vector/DRM) sums up what you can expect to hear throughout the album. Stunning, yet stripped-down arrangements allow Rice's emotive vocals to shine through on songs such as 'Cannonball,' 'Cheers Darling,' and 'I Remember.' Enhanced by piano, woodwinds, and most especially Vyvienne Long's exquisite cello playing ('Volcano,' 'The Blower's Daughter,' 'Older Chests'), Rice's songs reinforce the folk essence in popular music. Closing track 'Eskimo,' with its operatic vocal provided by Doreen Curran and lush orchestration, is hot enough to keep any igloo at a comfortable temperature.
Given the unlikely job of being the opening act for musical brother act Hanson's summer 2003 comeback tour, singer/songwriter Teitur (pronounce tie tore) handled it with grace. You would have expected that if you had heard his debut disc Poetry & Aeroplanes (Universal), on which the Faroe Islands (near Denmark) native recalls early Paul Simon on songs such as 'I Was Just Thinking,' 'Josephine,' 'One And Only,' and 'Shade Of A Shadow.' The 25-year-old Giovanni Ribisi look-alike also exhibits an ability to craft catchy, upbeat pop tunes as you can hear on 'Sleeping With The Lights On' and 'You're The Ocean,' making him an artist to watch in years to come.
Not everyone is a serious guy with a guitar and a message. Take Liam Lynch, for instance. In 'S.O.S.,' the opening track on Fake Songs (S-Curve), Lynch sings 'I don't even know whose house this is/I just know that I'm a friend of a friend of his,' which sets the tone for this party-crasher's collection of hilarious, but rocking nevertheless, tunes. A musical chameleon, Lynch steps into and clomps around in some pretty big shoes in his knockoffs of Bjork ('Fake Bjork Song'), Ziggy-era David Bowie ('Fake Bowie Song'), Depeche Mode ('Fake Depeche Mode Song'), Frank Black and company ('Fake Pixies Song') and Talking Heads ('Fake Talking Heads Song'). The remaining tracks are pure Lynch and are entertaining as well.
In the couple of years that have passed between the release of his full-length debut Electric Pocket Radio and his latest, Become The Soft.Lightes (Ultimatum), The Incredible Moses Leroy (a.k.a. Ron Fountenberry), has developed into an innovative and stimulating songwriter and performer. Everything hinted at on the previous disc comes to fruition in songs such as the Moby-esque 'Welcome To The Soft.Lightes,' the dazzling pop of 'Everybody's Getting Down,' the cloudy funk of 'The Color Of Sky' (featuring vocals by Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori), the sample-laden 'Music Is The Sound (of Music),' the Wizard of Oz references in 'Country Robot/A Letter To Dorothy,' the subtle electroclashes of 'We Don't Dance' and 'The Wonder Mic,' the porch swing country of 'The 4a,' and the delicate fireworks of 'The Fourth Of July.' Incredible? You bet!
Young blue-eyed soul singer Gavin DeGraw drives his debut disc Chariot (J) with care sounding like Jeff Buckley crossed with Stevie Wonder playing piano with Billy Joel. Songs such as the title track, 'Just Friends,' '(Nice To Meet You) Anyway,' 'Belief,' 'I Don't Want To Be,' and 'Over-Rated,' hold a lot of promise for this rising piano man.
Josh Kelley also has some of the blue-eyed soul in his sound, but his is mixed in with a definite twang on For The Ride Home (Hollywood). It's as if the folks at his label said, 'We'll take one from the John Mayer column and one from the Seal column and see what happens.' The results are mixed and I fear that Kelley may get lost in the shuffle, with listeners unable to distinguish him from the rest of the guys. He is capable of writing some catchy tunes, as you can hear on 'Everybody Loves You,' and the more country-flavored 'Angels,' 'Faces,' and 'Follow You.'
Some guys released second albums in 2003 with mixed results. Will Hoge sounds like he could step up and fill in for Adam Duritz of Counting Crows if Duritz was having dreadlock drama or some other dysfunction. His soulful vocals on the dozen songs on Blackbird On A Lonely Wire (Atlantic), produced by John Shanks (who has also worked with Melissa Etheridge, among many others) have a commercial polish that should give them a considerable shelf-life. Sexy singer/songwriter Pete Yorn made quite a splash with his 2001 debut album Musicforthemorningafter. Not as unique or as instantly accessible as its predecessor, Day I Forgot (Columbia) does contain interesting cuts such as the country-rock tinged 'Come Back Home,' the pleasant pop of 'Pass Me By,' the easy shuffle of 'When You See The Light,' and the slow-burning spiciness of 'Burrito,' that make it worth remembering.
Chinese Vacation (98 Pounder), the second album by Steve Poltz, who co-wrote 'You Were Meant For Me' with Jewel, contains a surprising cover of TLC's 'Waterfalls.' The remaining Poltz originals remind us, in spite of what you think of Jewel, that Poltz is a creative songwriter, which is evident in songs such as 'Friendly Fire,' 'You Remind Me,' '10 Chances,' and the title track.
Many of these guys owe a debt of gratitude to the late, lamented Jeff Buckley. Buckley, who drowned in 1997, had a gift for soaring, dramatic vocals. He performed original songs and transformed the songs of others (including Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, Alex Chilton, Nina Simone and Bob Telson) via his unforgettable renderings. Originally released as a four-song EP, preceding the release of his one full-length studio album, Live At Sin-E (Columbia), has now been expanded into a double-disc, 38-track live set that also includes a bonus DVD with interview and performance footage. This 'deluxe edition' confirms what so many people already knew, which is that Buckley was a compelling live performer and that we tragically lost a great artist whose potential was yet to be fully realized.
A vast improvement over fellow American Idol runner up Justin Guarini's disastrous debut disc, but Clay Aiken's album Measure Of A Man (RCA) ought to have been much better than this. It doesn't take a genius to see that Aiken's way with classic pop songs, including 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' and 'Solitaire,' indicated a smart move for the material on his first major label album. I can understand the desire to cover a Desmond Child song, but why not something from his abundant back catalog, say something written before Aiken was born? Several of the songs sound like recycled versions of other hit songs ('Shine,' for instance, resembles a Chicago song). Aiken comes closest to hitting his stride by 'I Survived You,' more than halfway through the disc. 'Perfect Day,' co-written by former child actress turned singer/songwriter Danielle Brisebois, gives Aiken the perfect opportunity to stretch a little, and the 'bonus cut' hit single 'This Is The Night' is the kind of Celine Dion-esque power ballad that might make the diva drool a bit. But then the Cathy ('Move To This') Dennis co-compositions are disappointingly dull. Sadly, Aiken simply doesn't measure up to his full potential on Measure Of A Man.
If you'd rather not be bothered with words, then I suggest The Mess We Made (Merge) by Matt Elliott (a.k.a. Third Eye Foundation), an atmospheric and ambient eight-track disc that is as ominous as it is comforting. 'The Sinking Ship Song,' the one song with lyrics (including the line 'Life is filled with fear so drink another beer'), has the potential to drive even the most hardcore teetotaler to drink.
Also consider the live set Live From First Avenue (Susstones) by Minneapolis-based Mark Mallman, the double-disc set Leaving The Lights On (Wingbone) by Prince sound-alike Kevin So, the self-titled debut disc cute country guy Jimmy Wayne (Dreamworks), David Grubbs's Rickets & Scurvy (Drag City) which features collaborations with writer Rick (The Ice Storm) Moody and musical guests such as John McEntire (Tortoise) and openly gay electronic duo Matmos, the acoustic blues of Kelly Joe Phelps on Slingshot Professionals (Rykodisc), indie folkie Terry Farmer's self-titled release (Terradactyl), We Were Born In A Flame (Universal) by Canadian singer/songwriter Sam Roberts, the infectious pop songs on Tell Your Mother (Thievery) by Bill McGarvey, promising singer/songwriter Franky Perez's debut disc Poor Man's Son (Lava), Ed Harcourt's follow-up to his acclaimed Here Be Monsters disc From Every Sphere (Astralwerks/Heavenly/Capitol), Break Your Mother's Heart (New West) by insurgent country guy Tim Easton, Mabelle (Hightone) by Ben Atkins, Fool For Love (Bloodshot) by sometime Lambchop contributor Paul Burch, Greg Trooper's country blues on Floating (Sugar Hill) and the bizarre anti-folk acoustic meanderings of Jeffrey Lewis (with Jack Lewis and Anders Griffen) on It's The Ones Who've Cracked That The Light Shines Through (Rough Trade).
Pictured: #1 Gavin DeGraw.
Pictured: #2 Teitur
Pictured: #3 Jimmy Wayne
Pictured: #4 Jeff Buckley