It seems that Goldenboy’s Shon Sullivan has been deeply affected by some of rock’s most important semi-popular musicians. In the case of a young artist like Sullivan, it makes a lot of sense to hear the artist’s influences being rehashed. After all, isn’t that just how it works? Most young musicians don’t emerge with a individual style, but rather an occasionally self-conscious blend of influences.
To Sullivan’s credit, the musicians he sounds like—and there are many—would go together pretty well on a mix CD. So the new Goldenboy disc, Underneath the Radio, sounds very much of a piece, even if it doesn’t contribute anything really new. It’s an uncluttered, attractively produced record, performed with skill and care. But if a record doesn’t do anything new or fill some sort of void—and this one fails on both accounts—then what’s the point? Sure, it’s pleasant, it’s easy as hell on the ears as well as the brain (even if it sometimes tries awfully hard to create the illusion of being cerebral). But it’s hard to imagine people living and dying by this record, and that’s probably because people have already lived and died by the records at the root of the Goldenboy sound.
Often the people who died by those records were the artists themselves, and in some sense this makes it easy to accuse Goldenboy of grave robbery. This is especially true in the case of Elliott Smith, Sullivan’s friend who supposedly gave him the nickname that turned into the band moniker. “Blackbird at Heart” is rather shamelessly indebted to Smith, and its marvelous melody and clever chord progression make the song a musical high point of Underneath the Radio. At the same time, it exemplifies the very derivative nature of much of the disc, and as a result becomes a good song that’s also a liability.
Elliott Smith isn’t the only dead guy whose ghost rears its head on Underneath the Radio. Sullivan’s occasional ascent into the upper registers of his voice, as good as it may be, recalls Chris Bell and the still-living Alex Chilton on Big Star’s early acoustic-based numbers. Play Goldenboy’s “I’m Still Down” and then Big Star’s “Thirteen” (later covered by… Elliott Smith) or the weird, Bell-less “Morpha Too” and the connection is clear. And while Nick Drake is more of a tangential influence—again, via the Elliott Smith connection—the horns on “Second Day of the Year” will sound for all the world like they came straight out of “Hazey Jane II”.
Granted, not everything on Underneath the Radio can be directly traced back to yesterday’s melancholia. The opener, “Ice Breaker Blues”, may well be the best song here: a shifting sonic landscape that goes on for well over five minutes, incorporating sighing “ah"s, ringing guitars, handclaps, simple piano, and Sullivan’s voice, which alternates between a Lou Reed monotone and the aforementioned influences. Plus the word “blues” is in the title but the song isn’t a blues, or even slightly bluesy, for that matter. It’s an ambitious, risky opener, and the songs that come later pale in comparison only because they don’t take as many chances. What immediately follows has a more traditionally accessible (read: radio-friendly) sound. “Summer of the Evening” is a folk-rock toe-tapper carried by an acoustic rhythm guitar and a Doug Yule-era Velvet Underground vibe. It also features one of the many understated guitar solos on Underneath the Radio. The mid-paced “Motorbike” has one of these solos, too, as does “End of Forever”. The latter, though, is a fine example of Sullivan’s slightly grating tendency to over-enunciate, as the title phrase sounds especially robotic.
Another of Sullivan’s problems is in the lyric department, as they sometimes aren’t up to the same standard as the music that augments them. “Goodbye Erica”, the rough-around-the-edges, somewhat uptempo acoustic number, does not benefit from rhyming the title with “sweet America.” And no one should ever again use the line “It’s all right, it’s okay,” as Sullivan does, to excess, in “End of Forever”. Please and thank you.
Overall, Underneath the Radio is a competent pop album, one that doesn’t totally avoid genuine beauty. The penultimate track, “By the Seaside”, features a violin and a wobbly, oceanic guitar. The effect is the indie-pop equivalent of holding a seashell up to your ear, and just as calming. “Ice Breaker Blues” and even “Blackbird at Heart” are excellent songs, too, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve been served a plate of what we’ve already been hearing for years. Yes, it’s hard to expect much from the majority of pop music these days, and this will only continue to be the case as more and more people make records. Competence and originality are not one and the same, and unfortunately for the likes of Goldenboy, the possibility of emotional impact is much greater in music that bears the latter characteristic.