I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about the category of folk-y, country-inflected, occasionally rock-ish songs—written most commonly by a singer on an acoustic guitar and which can be easily performed with or without a backing band—that are usually lumped into the woefully un-descriptive genre of “singer-songwriter.” What puzzles me is how this class of music can be simultaneously my most and least favorite genre, and what precise element it is that distinguishes the most interesting and tuneful singer-songwriter work from the tiresome, unadventurous, mediocre pack. It may be the case that the folk-y singer-songwriter genre may be the category in which it is the easiest to develop a workman-like musical competence and perhaps for that reason, the most difficult genre in which to really excel. While the best singer-songwriters are able to write indelible melodies and can redefine the sound of the troubadour, all the while making intelligent musical reference to the traveling singer traditions from which they sprang, so many others are seemingly engaged in a race to the uninspired and generic middle.
Unfortunately, it appears that Griffin House belongs squarely in the latter category. On Flying Upside Down, his third studio release, the greatest skill House exhibits is in straddling the border between perfectly pat but un-engaging background music and songwriting that is genuinely trite and boring without going too far adrift into maudlin musical netherworlds. Since picking up the guitar in college, House has spent his 20s developing his sound as a professional musician, and the resulting songs sound professional but nothing more. The album’s production is slick and the arrangements are full but unsurprising, and Griffin’s voice is pleasantly warm and deep but his performance strangely flat.
It’s disappointing that the instrumental and vocal performances are so lackluster, especially considering that House recruited two of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, keyboardist Benmont Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell, to back him. Knowing what these players can do with better material, it’s frustrating to hear them limited to such simplistic song structures and strained and silly lyrics. “She’s out of my league / And that’s the kind of girl I need”, House sings early in the album on “Let Me In”, and that is about as complicated, subtle, and insightful as the album’s lyrics get. On one of the album’s several attempts to channel Ryan Adams circa-Heartbreaker, “The Guy That Says Goodbye to You Is Out of His Mind”, House tries out his most complex songwriting trick and only manages a boringly predictable attempt at an internal rhyme scheme: “Relationships, I don’t know why / They never work out and they make you cry / But the guy who says goodbye to you / Is out of his mind”. Two songs, “I Remember (It’s Happening Again)” and album closer “Waiting for the Rain to Come”, share more than just their attempts to be raw emotional anthems—they also share the same basic song structure and rolling, unvaried patterns of iambs in their lyrics. The echoing patterns at the front and end of the album does nothing to shatter the impression that crops up throughout listening to this album that these are songs that have been heard before.
The only flash hinting that House might have something musically interesting to say comes on Flying Upside Down’s title track. The song combines a piano and guitar groove and woo-hoo-ing backing chorus sounding like they was lifted straight from the early 1970s with a swinging fiddle line supplied by Nickel Creek’s Sara Watson. And the urgency and need emoted in House’s vocal performance—“Take me all the way if you take me at all / ‘Cause I got nothing but the ground to break my fall”—makes the lack of vocal subtlety on the album’s other tracks that much more of a let-down. If House can continue to follow this more enterprising line of songcraft in his effort to develop his own voice, then there’s reason to hope that House might be able to break out of the singer-songwriter pack. But he hasn’t managed it just yet.
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