Working on your heart

Carll Wilkinson starts the whole damn thing all over
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  July 1, 2009

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 EASY TO BELIEVE Carll Wilkinson.

With the talent we have in this town, just about anybody can put together a decent-sounding album. You pick up a few of the dozens of great studio musicians who're kicking around, team up with a Jonathan Wyman/Frank Hopkins/Marc Bartholomew/Pete Morse/Jim Begley type to engineer and produce, and have Adam Ayan master the whole thing, and, whammo: Start planning the CD-release party.

And sometimes that's all that's really there — some whammo, some good studio production, and some well-played instruments. Ten songs later, I've completely forgotten whose name was on the outside of the packaging.

So why am I still playing this Carll Wilkinson album (minus a couple tunes I left off the iPod)? Well, even though his upgrade from voice and a guitar on his debut Pomegranate to full-band treatment with Morse — plus drummer Stefan Samuels (Eldemur Krimm) and pianist Tom Snow — smelled initially of album-by-numbers, the new Working Poor Blues is literate and lyrical, and Wilkinson has a voice you can fall for in a hurry. The songs are still about love and loss, universal struggle, all the shit singer/songwriters write about all the time, but Wilkinson does it better than most.

Quite simply, I believe him. When "the season's killing me/It's breaking me at the knees" in the "Season," I can feel his pain. It's why he can get away with a too-easy metaphor (winter=my girl left) and not leave you cold.

Part of it's his delivery, a way of melding timbre and breathiness to create real desperation, sometimes clipped and pained like Dave Matthews, sometimes elongated and haunted like Ray LaMontagne. In the middle is something like Steve Winwood or Mark Cohn, blending in some '80s riffs (just a touch of cheese from time to time) and getting all-souled-out (but not in a Pete Rock and CL Smooth kind of way). You get the idea he'd be fine without the full-band treatment, after all.

But the rolling bass note that opens "Start the Whole Damn Thing Over" is grounding, and when the organ rings a single note for three measures before dancing with the piano, it's something worth listening to. Maybe by the end, when the "ahh-ahh" backing vocals enter, things get a little crowded, but it probably would have worked fine without the fade-out finish, which almost universally feels like a cop-out.

A few songs fade out, actually, which isn't half as bad as the repeated tactic of building in the drums for the second verse, and increasing instrumentation as songs go on, in general. This archetype is rife throughout the Portland scene right now, from metal to folk, and it's getting old in a hurry. It hurts "Redemption & Grace" the most, which is a mid-album respite in the beginning, with a passionate first verse that rips at the heart strings — "I've been broken/Drunk and disheveled/Battered and grim" — before turning into every folk-rock song you've ever heard. The whole crashing in of the extra instruments is so predictable, even if the bouncing piano chords are pretty cool in the chorus.

Also, I wouldn't bother much with "The Wedding Song" or the title track, which are like reading pulp fiction among literature, both of them trying too obviously to accomplish too much.

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