It’s hard not to think of Tom Waits when you hear Ethan Lipton. Not because they sound alike, necessarily, though Lipton’s lounge leanings certainly suggest a connection between the two. But what really links the two is that, like Waits, Lipton has an inexplicable quality to his singing. In one way, he’s got a pleasant, crooning voice. But there’s this jester’s edge to it that subtly coats every phrase, which lets you know that what you see on Honker isn’t always what you get.
In some ways, Lipton delivers folk songs for city subway passengers, all wrapped in a cool lounge act package. Songs like “Bicycle” and “Little Container” and “Showing My Love” are really oddball folk ditties that just happened to include warm, smoky beds of horns. At their best, these songs manage to be both hilarious and affecting. “Bicycle” is both a personal escape and a statement on city life where, at any moment, you could be pitted against, among other things, intrusive tourists. “You Were Right and It’s Okay” is both cutting—he drops lines in there like “Did you ever think you had a funny face… You were right, and it’s okay”—and an accepting celebration of individuality. “Poor Old Whitey” might be the funniest track here, as Lipton channels his inner-Newman to deliver a story of a miserly dude who prefers the “good old days”.
Lipton and his orchestra also stretch out sonically on this record, mixing it up enough to keep you interested, particularly through the first half. “I’m Sorry” starts with the same lounge shuffle as the songs before it, until the chorus erupts in a power-pop crunch. “We Would Have Never Met” is the first true crooner’s song on the record, where Lipton’s voice and some wandering saxophones take the track over. “First Moved to Town” has the most sinister rumble on the record, and the cloudy atmospheric feel to “When You Die” is given a solid heft with backing vocals from the National’s Matt Berninger and singer Cynthia Hopkins. The way the song erupts into a dramatic sing-along makes it the best moment on the record.
For all its solid moments, though, Honker might just give us more than we need. The album boasts 20 tracks, and though none of them run for all that long—and the whole album clocks in under an hour—it feels like too much all at once. The songs mentioned above stick out because they break from the formula, and though Lipton’s lounge-folk formula works for him, it starts to lose its edge the longer it sticks around.
That said, it’s hard to knock Honker too much. It’s got sweet melodies, songs that are both intricate and immediate, hilarious moments, heartbreaking moments, a great band, and a charismatic performer up front to deliver it all. And while his generosity on the record may be what keeps it from being great, it is also what distinguishes Ethan Lipton as a musician and promises not only greatness down the road but, like Waits, the exciting feel that you have no idea what he’ll do next.