On paper, Blue Merle is intriguing. The group’s curious frontline instrumentation which prominently features a mandolin is certainly interesting, and their name, cribbed from Led Zeppelin’s “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” adds to its mystique. But the Nashville-by-way-of-the-crossroads mix that might be immediately intimated before even popping their disc into your CD player is immediately dashed upon hearing the opening notes of Burning in the Sun.
Standing front and center of the group’s sound is singer Luke Reynolds’s aged-in-oak voice, which in case you’ve heard anything about Blue Merle, is a dead ringer for Chris Martin’s. It’s uncanny how similar their voices are in almost every aspect, from delivery to the slightly weathered texture of their vocal chords. The comparison becomes sharper and more obvious the more Reynolds pushes his voice during the group’s predictably rising choruses. Unfortunately, this will lead many critics to slap a lazy “Coldplay-goes-countrypolitan” tag on Blue Merle. But, Reynolds’s distracting voice aside, Blue Merle’s music is a lot more than a simple blend of MOR and new country. With equal shades of Dave Matthews, R.E.M., and Counting Crows, Burning in the Sun is a surprising, compelling listen.
From the opening notes of the title track, Blue Merle is certainly delivering something a little different. Beau Stapleton’s mandolin lines dance both feverishly and delicately around Reynolds’s expressive tenor. The tune is fleshed out with tasteful, if somewhat dry, fiddles expanding the song around Reynolds’s rich voice. Other tracks like “Lucky to Know” work hard to keep away from new country tag the band’s instrumentation could easily limit them to and point to something more in the direction of the Wallflowers. More upbeat numbers like “Boxcar Racer” and “Either Way It Goes” frame the old school instrumentation in strictly pop structures, again subverting whatever first conceptions an audience might have about Blue Merle.
Burning in the Sun is a strong album, with solid songwriting and production, but the group’s instrumentation—and its need to transcend it—creates an album that succeeds in an album that dodges expectations but fails to make a distinctive mark. Blue Merle sound like a lot of bands except itself. The mandolins and fiddles certainly add an interesting flavor to the mix, but after 12 tracks it borders on novelty. One wonders what these songs would’ve sounded like had they given themselves free rein with their instruments.
Blue Merle seems to want to have it both ways. It wants to be noticed for its instrumental line-up but doesn’t want to be confined by it. By trying to play both sides, Blue Merle is straddling the fence, resulting in an album that is equally as indifferent, and merely content to be good without a hint of striving for something more. It sounds great, features a dozen strong tracks, and on the first run through is certainly refreshing. But when the listener pops the disc out, or spins the dial to see what else is on, Burning in the Sun will unfortunately remain a distant memory.
// Notes from the Road
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