Piano man

Kevin Roper sets himself free
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  January 9, 2008

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If you haven’t heard from Kevin Roper lately, maybe it’s because he was busy getting married. That taken care of, he’s ready to release his second full-length disc, Set Yourself Free, just a few months later. Am I the only one who sees the irony there?

Actually, Roper seems to be a pretty free-spirited guy, so maybe he doesn’t see getting married as tying himself down (that comes later, when you have children). You know, even if he was having second thoughts, he’d probably take his own advice, as outlined in “Don’t Think” over a naked acoustic guitar: “Do you ever feel like you smoke too may cigarettes/And all you’re doing is living life with regrets?/Then don’t think about it anymore.”

I’m not sure Dr. Phil would approve, but it’s hard to argue with the sentiment and it must be working for him. As he tells us in “Old Stone Wall,” “no longer will I frown.”
For most of the rest of the disc, with emotive vocals, extended jams on both piano and guitar, and an upbeat folk-rock sensibility provided by a capable studio backing band, Roper does a nice job of translating his positive-energy live show into recordings you can feel good about, too. You won’t find a lot of cynicism here, or morbidity, so feel free to get on your feet and move about.

He’s best when working the ivories (and whatever the keys are made out of on his organ and Rhodes). The organ break on the title track should allow you to heed Roper’s call to “get up off your ass” and in “Talk the Talk” he hands himself a baton mid solo to move right from the piano into the organ. It’s fairly common for both the Rhodes and piano to be sounding at the same time during songs, the warm resonance of the former propping up the crisp notes of the latter.

Roper gets some help, too, from guitar solos by Bryan Gould, a longtime bandmate who moved up to Maine from Nashville as part of the fleeting Forgetful Jones and played with Electric Blue and the Kozmic Truth. At times, the two play off each other like Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Paige McConnell, segueing into each other’s solos and trading riffs, especially in the earnest retrospective “Nashville Way.” Seems Roper spent about a year down south, hooking on with Wondermore Records and opening for Col. Bruce Hampton at one point, “trying real hard not to fall.” His opening guitar pick just keeps falling, though, like a ball through a pinball machine, and the drum/bass breakdown late in the song feels like bottom.

We’re left with a “Different Picture of Me,” the best track on the album (though maybe a tad long, at 7:11), where Roper channels Aaron Katz and gets great backing vocals from Jessie Chazin in the heartfelt chorus: “How long,” he wonders, “until I can settle down?” From the sound of the piano break, so self-assured and relaxed, his anxiety on this matter has largely been alleviated.

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