What an auspicious beginning: pedal steel guitar and a girl’s wistful twang with the bite of rhubarb. Alt-country, you’re thinking, and the fiddle and organ would prove you right. Mara Keagle’s vocals strike right to the bone on the opening (eponymous) track of this debut CD from San Francisco’s An American Starlet.
Quite nice for a collective that actually is more of just a guy. Humility is a staple of the alt-country diet, and definitely is in this case—you’ve got to look hard through the credits list to figure out who performers on most of the tracks. Way down the list (ninth out of 13, to be exact) Ian Parks appears: he’s the Starlet man. He does more than just play guitars and write songs: he’s also responsible for vocals, mandolin, fiddle, dobro, banjo, bass, and producing.
Over the course of eight months Parks gathered his friends in his performance/recording studio and put together this CD, writing and recording and then releasing it on his own. That in itself is quite an accomplishment, and the standout tracks make it more than worth his effort.
On “Why Are You Alone Tonight”, Parks sings solo, with a wavering mellotron, that steel guitar, and low-key drums. Simple and lilting, the songwriting stands out—no remarkable vocabulary words but a simple and rhythmic stepping melody that evokes the kind of songs Patsy Cline used to record. Similarly, bare acoustic instrumentation on “Waltzing to 12” offsets melancholy lyrics in the most flattering light.
Yet on a handful of the tracks, the country gets rock-ified—to its detriment. Or maybe all the songs began as rock and only the lucky ones got stripped down to raw sinew. Parks, a veteran of two major-label rock bands, has admitted that the demise of his second band, the Magnetics, was due to “trying to tailor ourselves to what we thought would be embraced by the record industry.” A ready-for-radio, smoothed-out rock sound makes appearances here, on “She’s a Star”, “Softly Tomorrow”, and “Know It Was Better”; it sounds as though Parks has not yet completely ditched his bad habits. Some would probably not consider these smooth edges bad, but in contrast to a gem like “Sweet Country Lullabies”, the rock songs do fade to pale.
Yet for each time Parks stumbles, there’s another song with a gentle backing vocal or weaving mandolin line to set the CD back on track. The production, for the most part, is unimpeachable, and the instrumentation is lush with talent. The lyrics occasionally get short shrift, but when they’re on, they glide into their songs’ melodies like butter.
Chalk the weak spots up to self-editing (even the most brilliant artists need a cold cruel hand to cut the chaff), or to bad striving-for-success habits. It could even be that all Ian Parks needs is to commit a handful of his best players to really becoming a band, and that their give-and-take would create a more solid whole. For pete’s sake, he should at least wrangle Nora Keagle (smallstone) into appearing on more than just two tracks next time around—in her he’s found a terrific interpreter.
With a bit of luck the next An American Starlet record will prove the great songs here no fluke.