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Here we go again. Another indie popster gets compared to Elliott Smith, Big Star, and the Beach Boys. Seems like those are the Big Three to be associated with if you’re the singer/songwriter type in the college radio market. Mark Helm is the latest artist to be branded with this kiss of death. I say kiss of death because all of those artists, while indeed great and wonderful should just not be name-dropped anymore. And really, I never hear any Elliott Smith going on in these songs that are supposedly derivative of his sound.
So does that make Helm’s Everything’s OK a bad listen? Not necessarily, but the fact that there’s 16 tracks here that all wear the aforementioned influences on their sleeves certainly doesn’t help. Is it just me, or wouldn’t it be nice to just hear some of these guys play something that sounded uniquely their own? Sure it’s cool to work off your heroes, but when it becomes a game of spot the influence through and through, you’re often left wanting to just hear the real thing.
I can’t really get around Helm’s voice, either. To me he sounds like another Scott Garred (Super XX Man) with his shaky and delicate voice that may burst into tears at any moment because the songs are so sweet. Rock me, Amadeus. Put a little vinegar in with the saccharine. The opening track “So Faraway” is a sweet little ode to another “Jenny” backed with a droning organ and bongos. Helm sounds like he’s about to break down as those Chris Bell/Big Star-influenced backing ooooohs and Beach Boys-derived bop bop bops take over. Strike one, two, three right off the bat my friend.
“Galaxy of Cars” does its best impression of alt-country that you’ve heard by other, better bands in the past (Flying Burrito Brothers perhaps). And get ready for “What Holds the World Together” after that. It’s another “Strawberry Fields Forever” wannabe with none of the power and all of the mellotron. Ah, God love these boys who all work from the same pot of obvious influence and second rate results.
“Haircut” repeats the Big Star gig again, only this time from Chilton’s side of the fence, while “Dismantling the Sun” does its best turn as ‘60s-derived psychedelia, a la Pink Floyd in their Syd Barrett years. And then there’s “Lemons Limes and Flying Saucers” that’s about as close to Donovan as one could possibly achieve. Personally, I never cared to get that close to the Sunshine Superman. Then there’s the rocking attempt of “Week of Days” and more hippie trippiness in “Suite: #1”. And all of this just in the first half of the album. Are you as worn out as I am yet?
The second half of the disc repeats all the same formulas again, from the twang of the title track to the Wilsonesque “Sweet Dreams Baby” and the Sister Lovers-ish “Audrey Hepburn”. There is absolutely nothing here that isn’t taken from some greater source that ultimately sounds much weaker in Mark’s hands. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Mark Helm’s Karaoke Night.
All I can ask is what really is the point here? Sure it’s cool that Helm can cite his influences musically. But there’s nothing here to keep you coming back. No originality, no hooks that beg for you to play these songs over and over. With his apparent wealth of talent, Helm could certainly do better than ape his heroes here. But he doesn’t bother to. Instead, he decides to record unchallenging music that will no doubt be heralded by those who love to hear themselves say the names Big Star, Beach Boys, and Beatles. Thanks, but no thanks. If I want that, I’ll go listen to the real thing.
// Notes from the Road
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