“Savannah” would be better

Joe Farren would just get in trouble in Atlanta
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  August 29, 2007
insidebeat_joefarren_noguit
MULTI-INSTRUMENTALIST: Joe Farren.

Despite big words for Ray LaMontagne’s Trouble and Till the Sun Turns Black, I’ve often whined that I prefer his solo performances and stripped-down demos. Ethan Johns’s gussying up of the label releases is well done and all, but it sometimes feels like window dressing, unnecessary. Similarly, though Joe Farren’s ‘Til the Day features some very fine production and a number of great musical performances on nearly every tune, why does the six-minute-plus final track, “Go On,” full of nothing but guitar, vocals, and a little harmonica, seem like our first introduction to the real Joe Farren?

Sure, Farren, a music-school grad and veteran of the Portland club scene with Shufflin’ Tremble, plays all kinds of the guitars, drums, piano, and other instruments on this album, but when they’re put all together (alongside very capable Nashville and Portland session players, I might add) things can seem a bit cluttered. Take the nigh-on-spectacular “Savannah,” which opens the disc. Farren’s delivery is endearing and soulful, and the powerhouse chorus is the child of “Sweet Home Alabama” and Gary Louris, but there’s so much vying for your attention — organ and strings and electric guitar and saxophone and echoed second vocal tracks — the song can’t quite shine through the performance.

‘Til The Day | Released by Joe Farren | at Slainte, in Portland | Aug 31
Big studio-created bands have always struck me as a Napoleonic songwriter’s overcompensation (or an irresistible plaything). Farren shouldn’t be afraid to let himself be the star. He writes a competent couplet — ”You always liked the spotlight/To play someone else’s life made your own seem alright” — and his habit of using an expected final word to transition into the beginning of a follow-on line elicits pleasant surprises. His play on contemporary country pulls out the big fiddles, pedal steel, and major chords without delving into the bravado or sanctimony.

Those paragraphs amount to a compliment wrapped in some pissy criticism, I suppose. Did I mention “Broken Man” suckered me with a mix of sounds like Bob Seger playing “Thunder Rolls?” That the mix on this album, thanks to Tom Acousti, is one of the best I’ve heard this year?

To return to the earlier theme, though: This cover of the Beatles’ “Something” perplexes me. With a piano and time-keeping high hat, Farren doesn’t do enough to differentiate it in the opening, and when he grinds the bridge and lets Richard Griffin’s sax solo run on, it’s just not a tune Farren needs on his solo album. I bet it kicks ass live, and Farren would make a terrific bandleader in general, but as part of an economical 12 tracks it seems more like a throw-in than something to say. Whose name is on the spine of this disc?

Look, the guy played Danny Zuko in Grease, but he could use a little more turned-up-collar swagger on ‘Til the Day.

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