This column is devoted to people who reminded me of someone else. Yes, I know: comparisons are odious. So you try to tell readers what a musician sounds like without resorting to analogies. Besides, I'm only doing what agents, publicists, and promoters do. Everything I get these days comes with a "For fans of…." tag.
At the top of my list is JD Eicher, a Youngstown, Ohio, native that some people know for his work with The Goodnights. His new release, The Middle Distance (Rock Ridge) is a much more personal work. It took me a New York minute into "This Heart"—that's much shorter than an Ohio minute for the uninitiated–to think "Ellis Paul." Okay, Eicher doesn't perform with Paul's leave-every-drop-of-sweat-on-the-stage energy, but who does? But Eicher does live in the same counter-tenor range as Paul, complete with embellishments that can only be oxymoronically called "muscular whisper tones." Can you imagine Ellis singing this line: "There’s a song that’s still unheard/There’s a hope that still hangs on and never dies/There’s a bunch of able words/Tied up in a bunch of tangled lies/And there’s a broken man/Lost and trying to answer for his sins/And there are some folded hands/Begging for a way to start again" Yeah—me too. Eicher's arrangements are generally more lush and atmospheric than Paul's—a strength and, on occasion, a drawback when his light voice disappears into the aural haze. My personal affinity lies with more stripped down songs such as the tender "Lines in the Sky," and "Not Afraid," in which soupy sound is balanced with quiet places in which he delivers the message of moving through life boldly. Lots of us need to be reminded that relationships aren't easy and that staying in love demands working through the tough times, the sermon he delivers in "What We're Not." Speaking of sermons, whatever your beliefs you need to admire Eicher's "Man of Faith," in which he professes his own with no judgments and no apologies. Two other tracks to consider: "The Little Bit" has the rapid- fire lyrical cadences of a Paul Simon song, complete with a pop-soaked refrain; and the title track is a duet with himself, which he accomplishes through switching to falsetto. It's jarring at first, but it works.
Ben Bedford reminds me of Richard Shindell fused with the late Townes Van Zandt. His voice isn't like either of them, though he shares Shindell's dry tones and Van Zandt's penchant for minimalist arrangements that are more complex than they sound. Like Shindell, Bedford could be viewed as a guitar-bearing poet, philosopher, and sometime theologian. His latest album, The Pilot and the Flying Machine (Waterbug), is about journeys of all sorts: natural, spiritual, metaphorical…. Or at least that's my take. Bedford's poetic vision is deeply interior and enigmatic. I'm pretty sure, for instance, that "Blood on Missouri" lines such as "Feel the shock to the marrow/as your head hits the ground/see the sky through the shields and the smoke/while the wand crushes down" references the killing of Darren Wilson in Ferguson, though references to "the seeds that we've sown for 400 years" also hints of a Native American connection. The title track Part I uses aircraft metaphors, but it's really about a person chasing dreams he was told were impossible. Part II has a very different feel and I'm not certain what it's about. Old age? Feeling hollowed out? Contentment? Yep—things are like that on this album. How many musicians would have the courage to do a jazz/country mix on a song built around being bored on the road, an auto accident on a snowy Iowa night, and feeling like Lucifer from Twain's "Letters from the Earth?" Get the picture? Call this record "music for people with brains they want to use." Maybe you won't know what Bedford intends, but you'll understand that the man is trying to tell you something and your own imagination ignites as you contemplate what it might be. This is one of the smartest records I've heard this side of, well, Richard Shindell.
"Holding Her Freedom." The only downside to this 12-track collection is that some of the arrangements are quite similar, but when Dixon gets funky on the black keys–as he does on both "Crave" and "That Redemption"–the soulful turns add needed depth. My personal favorite, though, is guitar-based and falls on the tender side of the ledger, "The OneThing I Did Right." It's a confessional from guy who knows he's not the gold medal catch: God knows I've been wrong a million times/You're the one thing I did right/I could do the wrong thing the rest of my life/You're the one thing I did right. That one got to me. Maybe I relate too well.