It’s hard to write a song about falling for a lesbian without coming off a bit gimmicky. The first single off Griffin House’s latest album, The Learner, is no exception. “She Likes Girls” shares thematic, though not stylistic, ground with Reel Big Fish’s “She Has a Girlfriend Now” and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl”. When House sings, “I like girls, and so does she”, it’s done with the same wink-wink, nudge-nudge, aren’t-we-naughty salaciousness that is hard to take seriously. Which is unfortunate, because while the broad strokes of this single may garner House some attention, the song itself does not represent the album particularly well.
A better entry point is “If You Want To”, co-written by Semisonic’s Dan Wilson. Like much of the album, the song has a lilting country rock groove that could be a lost Eagles track. House tosses in just enough piano riffs and hand claps to keep things interesting. It is not a bad way to spend a few minutes, but also not a track that demands another listen.
House has been at this for a while. This is his fifth album, and The Learner feels like it was written by someone who is a little too comfortable with where he’s at. There is a lack of urgency throughout. House is a engaging songwriter, but he doesn’t stretch much here. The result is an entire album is filled with good solid songs, but no great ones.
It’s not as if House doesn’t feel any angst. His lyrics return frequently to the theme of yearning for something just beyond his reach—love, fame, satisfaction. On “Gotta Get Out”, House repeats the mantra “Gotta get out of this town before it’s too late”. He is a man running out of time to follow his dreams, but while the song itself is catchy, it is also a bit slack, betraying the lyrical sentiment. The mood should be one of intense desperation, but instead the music lends the impression that, while getting out of town is a priority, House might take a nap first.
On other songs, House’s easy-going vibe fits perfectly. “River City Lights” is a gorgeous meditation on love, with Alison Krauss’s vocals providing a perfect complement to House. It meanders along like most of the songs, but that’s just fine when you’re singing about watching the river roll by with a girl you love. Another standout, and one of the album’s few surprises, is “Feels So Right”. With its driving drum beat and falsettos stretching House’s vocals in interesting and satisfying directions, it is less restrained than the rest of the set. It embodies the spontaneity of a tune whipped off in one take in the studio as a lark. But it also is filled with the joy of getting that take perfect on the first try.
House’s fans will likely enjoy The Learner, and it may attract some new listeners looking for low-key roots rock. But at the same time, much of the album leaves you wanting House to dig deeper and translate the desire in his lyrics into the songs themselves.