Plug Research is one of the most unpredictable labels currently extant. Although releases from artists such as John Tejada and Headset initially marked them as an electronic label, folks such as Damon Aaron are intent on stretching the boundaries of any prior preconceptions.
Aaron is what an earlier era might have called a singer-songwriter, the kind of folk troubadour who used to spring up like dandelion patches up and down the California coast before recording lushly-produced debut albums in Los Angeles studios. The tradition has seen something of a renaissance in recent years, with artists like Jack Johnson appealing to a new generation of hedonistic and yet overly-sincere 20-somethings, like Jimmy Buffet without the redeeming sense of self-parody.
Apparently Aaron’s been bumming around for some fifteen years, up and down the California coast in addition to Japan and Europe. As you might expect from such a resume, Aaron’s playing is superb. He has a pleasant feel for the kind of silvery, lyrical playing that brings to mind blues-era Clapton and especially James Taylor. Its easy to understand how Aaron made a name for himself as a session player, because his fret work is unerringly precise while still managing to be pleasingly languid.
If Ballast consisted of nothing more than Aaron’s guitar playing, the album would be a good deal better than it actually is. The problem is that while his playing is good, his songs are not. Furthermore, the album’s much-lauded hybrid of traditional singer-songwriter sounds with more expansive electronic elements is just not very impressive. Instead of a smooth gestalt, the album’s two flavors appear mostly separate. The album’s opening “Intro”, for instance, is a brief instrumental that brings to mind the likes of early-era Grayboy, with hip-hop beats spliced to more thoughtful soul elements. But “Intro” only lasts a minute before giving way to “Roadmaps”. Like most of the tracks on Ballast, “Roadmaps” is fairly simple, a gentle ballad built on the interaction of Aaron’s guitar and soft, almost jazzy percussion. But as soon as Aaron opens his mouth you begin to sense that something is amiss:
“It was more than that, /
Just a roadmap, /
We took it anyway, /
It led us astray.”
If that seems comically simple, it’s a fairly good example of the album’s lyrical depth. There’s lots of po-faced romanticizing and a little bit of blue eyed soul. Regrettable couplets like “Show me the way to freedom, / I want something to believe in”, (from “Freedom”) show up with alarming regularity.
The few times when Aaron does attempt to incorporate electronic elements into his sound are less than memorable. “All I Need” (not a cover of the Air tune of the same name) is a conventional ballad with strange whooshing synthesizer noises interposed seemingly at random among the guitar, voice and percussion. There are quite a few tasteful tracks on here that might just appeal to those who find Norah Jones irresistible, as much of Aaron’s material carries the same kind of languid, vaguely erotic air of mild discomfit in which Ms. Jones specializes (Aaron even comes remarkably close to biting the melody of her signature “Don’t Know Why”, on “Don’t Know How It Happens”).
If I were putting together a recording session and needed a great guitarist with a distinctively minimal style, Damon Aaron might be near the top of my list. But as a songwriter he suffers from a crippling reliance on cliché, and his vocals somehow manage the odd trick of being both over-emotive and lackadaisical at the same time. Ballast is an unfortunate name for Aaron’s solo debut, and it is only the highest degree of self restraint that prevents me from making some sort of cheesy joke about throwing this disc overboard. Oh, well.