Sean Croghan may not have garnered much national press yet, but he’s got the Pacific Northwest alternative weeklies behind him. Both the Willamette Week of Portland and the Seattle Weekly gave his debut solo album, From Burnt Orange to Midnight Blue, stellar reviews—the Seattle Weekly labeling him one of Portland’s premiere songwriters, ranking alongside Elliott Smith and Pete Krebs. Many reviewers have also compared him to the king of intellectual pop, Elvis Costello.
Croghan is a Portland independent music darling who has played in notable bands such as the ‘80s punk band Crackerbash and the power-pop quartet Jr High. In fact, From Burnt Orange to Midnight Blue is itself a tribute to the City of Roses.
The album personifies Portland, showing both the clear, sunny, colorful summer days and the dreary, melancholy, gray days of fall and winter. Whereas some songs turn into festive jams that sound as if they should be played outside in an amphitheater surrounded by bright flowers and beneath the sun, others sound as if they should be performed in a small, dimly lit smoky club while it’s raining outside.
In the Willamette Week, he is quoted saying, “The whole record basically is dedicated to Portland”. His songs are personal experiences filled with melancholic verses longing for lost love and lost friends. Sometimes his lyrics are so specific, as in “John McConnell’s Ghost”, where he mentions walking down Burnside, a downtown Portland street. But, according to the Willamette Week, he hopes to reach a broader audience and make his personal experiences universal experiences.
Croghan pulls this off well through the music—especially with his emotional voice. He sings in a sort of pop/emo voice. It is especially emo-like on the first track, “Gweneveire”, a love ballad he sings with raw emotion. One line captures the mood particularly well: “Morrissey’s taunting me on the stereo”.
“Friday’s Face in Sunday’s Suit” is less filled with raw anguish and is instead more of a tranquil tune sung to a delicate acoustic guitar part. A heavy, slow bassline pulls the song along as Croghan sings that he’s sorry. Later, organ chords and synth string sounds fill the song.
“Little Miss Whiplash” and “It’s Gonna Be Alright” are the two songs on From Burnt Orange to Midnight Blue that are most reminiscent of Elvis Costello. Both are upbeat and rich in instrumentation such as Hammond organ and piano. “It’s Gonna Be Alright” is a little more rockish with a guitar solo toward the end.
From Burnt Orange to Midnight Blue highlights Croghan’s talent for both sincere, raw ballads and spirited pop tunes. I have to say, though, my favorite song on the album is “Space Room”, a sweet simple piece done mostly with just piano and Croghan’s singing. The song highlights Croghan’s talent for singing from the heart. In “Space Room”, Croghan sings with confidence, but falters in his higher range, conveying pure honesty uncorrupted by overproduction.
The music on From Burnt Orange to Midnight Blue is certainly well done but it’s Croghan’s lyrics and voice that really carry the album. His versatile voice and personal lyrics create an intimate picture that draws in listeners. Croghan may be Portland’s best kept musical secret, but surely not for long. That is, if From Burnt Orange to Midnight Blue gets the critical acclaim it deserves.