Garrison Starr’s seventh album might be called Amateur, but that’s the furthest from the truth. The country pop singer-songwriter has sandpapered down her collection of 13 songs here, and they practically sparkle and shine. Starr has an upbeat and positive personality, even bubbling in the enclosed liner notes to her fans: “Thank you so much for lifting my spirits and encouraging me to keep moving. For the first time in my life, I feel truly happy.” That sense of contentedness really rubs off in the smooth and catchy hooks of the songs that populate Amateur – well, for the most part. Starr has even gone so far to rein in one of her idols, country royalty Mary Chapin Carpenter, to sing backup vocals on acoustic ballad “I May Not Let Go”. The overall vibe of the album is one of pleasantness. There certainly are bright, shimmering numbers to be found here, including “To Garrison, On Her 29th Birthday”, which nicks the bass line melody (probably unintentionally) from Guided by Voices’ “King and Caroline”, and the frizzy “Between the Devil’s Rain and a Dying Language”. My favorite is “When Nobody Was Looking”, which sort of sounds like – and please don’t laugh – an ‘80s track in the vein of Eddie Money. In fact, Starr comes off sounding a lot like Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards in both tone of material and voice. Put Voyageur and Amateur into a multiple CD player and shuffle between the two, and I would dare you to tell the difference.
Amateur isn’t a totally stellar affair. At almost 50 minutes in length, it could use a bit of pruning. The songs tend to sound the same and run into each other, giving the record – outside of “When Nobody Was Looking” – the sense that there aren’t any really standout tracks. Perhaps over-consistency would be a way to describe Amateur. Also, while ballad “The Needle and the Vein” is an absorbing song about drug use, it sounds a little odd on an album largely full of punchy and uplifting numbers – and I get the sense that Starr isn’t exactly someone who has personal experience, say, mainlining heroin. (I could be wrong, but that’s the impression the largely breezy nature of Amateur gives off, never mind the fact that she did have a song on an earlier album titled “Like a Drug”.) Starr, despite her sunny disposition, sometimes looks down at her belly button and ruminates in the negative: final track “Other People’s Eyes” offers the line “I’m 35 now and I feel washed up”. Still, Amateur is a poppy, sleek disc full of tuneful mainstream country songs, and the work of someone who has spent a great deal of time honing her craft. Despite the odd foray into dark territory, Amateur is sugary sweet, and the overall vibe that you get from this cute and cuddly album is that perhaps its creator might need a good well-placed hug now and then.
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