Daniel Martin Moore will go down, at the very least, as a small part of music history. He is the only musician to get a deal with Sub Pop records on the strength of his unsolicited demo. And the timing couldn’t be better, as the record company is busy celebrating its 20th anniversary. Seems fitting that someone would finally get lifted out of a slush pile of demos and get the chance to join the fold.
But how the hell did Moore do it? The question isn’t raised because of the quality of his first record, Stray Age. In fact, the record is quite enjoyable beginning to end. But it’s a record that calls almost no attention to itself. Moore’s hushed folk tunes carry the quiet of Nick Drake, but lack the heft of his oppressive emotions and the flashiness of his guitar playing. As a vocalist, Moore barely raises his voice above a conspiratorial whisper, and yet it’s so high in the mix his guitar sounds like a faint afterthought at times, buried deep in the background.
Still, a close ear will find some hidden treasures in these songs. Moore is bittersweet and romantic all over this record, so much so that it borders on schmaltz. But there is an earnestness to his delivery. The restraint in it doesn’t come from a lack of vocal range so much as it comes from a desire to not overstate his case. “Come be close, and be rested,” he invites on the title track. Such a simple, plain statement, free of pining or pleading. That’s the way things are in Stray Age. Moore’s confessions seem serious, heartfelt, and even aching at times, but he avoids melodrama and histrionics. The idea seems to be that the listener has their own part to play. That Moore isn’t going to just demand your attention. He’s going to invite you in a whisper and wait for you to meet him halfway.
And when you do, the stretched-out build-up of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” awaits you. The Sandy Denny song, in Moore’s hands, is a delicate piece of beauty. With help from the likes of Petra Haden, the song starts like another quiet solo track and fills out with vibraphone and piano and barely-there percussion into something expansive. Still quiet, but a big, permeating quiet. Similarly, the full-band “That’ll Be the Plan” picks up the pace a bit, and Moore gives us his best vocal performance, with gravelly verses and clarified and sweet choruses. And “Restoration Sketches” is an instrumental piece where Moore wordlessly harmonizes with Jesca Hoop, and the brief song slowly fills space and warms as it goes.
But while quiet and delicate is the point on Stray Age, much of it leaves you wishing it would assert itself more. Especially the tracks that are just Moore on guitar and vocals, where he feels at his most unmoored and drifting. The loose nature of his melodies is charming when he has other players to share it with, but alone it sounds a little too close to the shapeless stuff of coffeehouse mixed discs. And at times, like on “By Dream”, where he sings “I will go by dream to you”, he overplays his hand lyrically, moving from quiet, earnest confessions to cheesy promises.
But still, none of this comes off as bad. The album is a smooth and easy listen all the way through. And if you give it time, its better moments will make themselves known to you. But Stray Age is an album that struggles to walk the fine line between dreamy and sleepy, between laid-back and slack. And though it succeeds on its own modest terms, it is when the album plays it most safe that Daniel Martin Moore sounds the least in his element.