Spiritual and soulful, hulking and scary, dark and delicious, Jeffrey Gaines has one of those faces appealing from any angle. It’s a real pity the same can’t be said for his new album. It’s not that the Pennsylvania-born singer-songwriter is bad, it’s just the promise exhibited on previous albums, Galore (1998) and Always Be (2001), was lost somewhere on the road leading to his latest, Toward the Sun.
Gaines’ problem lies not in his skill as a musician, but as a songwriter. His lyrics are often tiresome and clichéd, removing much of the intensity from his otherwise competent tracks. Take “Love Me”, for example, with Gaines “too proud” to let his “feelings out”, he misses his “home” and feels “so alone” to the point that all he wants is “to shout hold me, kiss me, touch me, love me, need me, want me, hold me, love me”. The song, written by Gaines about people, especially strangers, needing to embrace and find comfort in each other, is so button-poppingly exploding with overused rhymes and tired segues that’s it’s almost embarrassing to listen to, especially in light of what Gaines has previously proved himself capable of.
And the clunkers keep on coming. “Come out Tonight” features one of the most annoying verses on the album, with Gaines using incomplete thoughts such as, “Sweet summertime / So warm and green / Ain’t felt like this / Since seventeen”, to achieve his rhymes. He’s at it again on “Without You”, only this time, instead of unfinished sentences, he delivers an experiment in redundancy: “I’m no good without you / Without you I’m no good”, before hitting listeners with the cringe-worthy, “I miss you every day / ‘Cause there’s no-one quite like you / I wish that I could find a way / To get you back ‘cause I’m no good”.
Just what happened to the man who only a few years ago gave us the giggly-gorgeous “Happy That” (featuring the awesome lyric, “The morning sun was shining brightly I told her I was high on life politely”), which, while not entirely original, demonstrated an interesting flair for rhyme? Where is the artist who produced almost an entire album of confessional tracks on his 1992 self-titled debut? It’s rather perplexing, because while the songs featured on Toward the Sun are easygoing and soothing to the ear, they’re missing the rawness of Gaines’ previous material.
In fact, it’s hard to find one song in this entire package that doesn’t rehash well-worn themes about wasting life, telling lies, or holding on tight. Gaines rarely brings any insight into the world around him, the people he loves, or his own energies and influences. He seems to be singing for someone else, afraid to plunge the depths of his own psyche to stir to the top images significant to him, or thoughts unique to him. Instead we get yet another guy “walking around with [his] head in the clouds”.
However, Gaines, shouldn’t be entirely written off. His abilities as a musician are hard to overlook. Playing the majority of the guitars (acoustic, electric, and bass) on the album, the man knows how to handle an axe. He also knows how to create rousing pop/country melodies, while his backing band, featuring uber-producer Mitchell Froom (Crowded House, Elvis Costello) on pianos (not to mention Indian banjo and mini-moog), Val McCallum (guitars, slide), John Pierce (bass), and Matt Chamberlain (drums, percussion) are just as impressive, infusing stirring mood to the songs which, no doubt, sound incredible live.
On closer-than-close listen, though, Toward the Sun falls flat. A bit of the fearless soul searching Gaines impressed audiences with a few years back would surely go a long way to putting him back on the map as one to watch.