Neilson Hubbard has a little bit of everything in him. From the spiritual side to the more morose section of his muse, the former member of the Living Hand has worked with an eclectic array of writers and musicians from Garrison Starr to Cindy Wilson of the B-52’s. But throughout his solo work, the comparisons to Elliott Smith and Pedro the Lion are justifiable. On his latest record, Hubbard goes a bit deeper both musically and lyrically for a series of brief yet poignant vignettes. The opening “Stars” is a great example of this. Here, Hubbard works with a simple verse and shapes it into something grander than it should be, from the keyboard touches to the subtle backing harmonies courtesy of either Betsy Ulmer or Cathy Horne. The verse is repeated twice but somehow feels totally different. The Beatles influences can be heard in well-placed instruments and the lengthy yet gorgeous backing vocals.
“The Lord Is My Strength and My Song” is written on the back of the liner sleeve and for a good reason. “You’ll Be There” is another pretty piano-laced ballad that could fit on any radio format. What makes it work so easily, though, is how Hubbard refuses to beat the listener over the head with an overtly religious messages like some contemporary Christian bands. Instead, a song like this one works on multiple levels. Hubbard’s strumming over David Henry’s cello brings to mind a “born again” Michael Penn in his early albums. “When the lights go down and there’s not a sound / You’ll be there”, which could mean either the big person upstairs or your better half. The back-beat on “Ready for You” sounds tired, though, being a well-worn sampled back beat that was all the rage three or four years ago. If brushes were used here they would fit better. This is a decent Neil Finn B-side at its best, but this only happens during the latter portions of the song.
Hubbard possesses all of the necessary chops to have a long and fruitful career if he sticks to his bread and butter. The title track, with his hushed delivery over whispered harmonies, is gorgeous to the ears. Hubbard never resorts to taking the easy way out with clichéd lines or soppy phrasing. It is the best of several stellar moments on this 35-minute album. The guitar playing is not the best but more than adequate, bringing to mind the quirky manner in which Ron Sexsmith picks. And he never emotes the vocals for the sake of it. Fading out nicely with some more strings, Hubbard has found that special something. Turning the tempo up is the sugarcoated “Everything’s Starting”, a song where Matthew Sweet or Velvet Crush are somewhere eating their hearts out. The back porch or campfire aura makes the song work all the more. “Everything’s starting to look brand new / And I’m starting to feel it too”, Hubbard sings before taking the song down just slightly for the bridge.
The serenade-like lullaby “Say You Love Me” is another strong track, but the strings here seems a bit out of place, making the song sound needlessly bigger than it should be. The tune suffers terribly as a result, making it half the track it could be before abruptly fading out. “Nothing without You” is a heartfelt singer-songwriter tune where Hubbard mixes traces of Eddie Vedder and Tom Petty into his voice. Warm, yet a tad distant, the song would fit perfectly on Petty’s album She’s the One. “Jesus” is a cover of the Lou Reed song. Yes, that Lou Reed. Void of the minimal guitar riff or catchy primal rhythm section, the song is a very odd rendition. Mixing ambient and organic Eno-like keyboards over a bland tempo, Hubbard never really gets this song off the ground. The title of the song is appropriate, but the meaning infers what one would utter after feeling dejected by this attempt. Fortunately it’s only one miscue on an otherwise stark and haunting experience.
// Notes from the Road
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