There’s no shortage of Joseph Arthur material out there these days. With a handful of full-lengths already floating around, Arthur has spent 2008 putting out a series of self-released EPs, and Vagabond Skies is the latest in that series. And while his ambition and work ethic should be applauded, prolificacy is not always a good thing.
In Arthur’s case, the more he puts out, the more listeners become aware of his limits. At his best, Arthur puts out lush and affectingly chilly ballads driven by his smoky vocals. But when he falls short, his music becomes indecipherable from any other singer songwriter being pumped through the overhead speakers at your local Borders. And unfortunately, much of Vagabond Skies falls into that nameless and forgettable category. There’s nothing here that is terribly bad—though the overproduced drummer and under-energized vocals on “Pretty Good Company” fails the most—but nothing stands out.
Everything clocks in just over three minutes, and keeps the same mid-tempo pace. “She Paints Me Gold” is the only track that tries something different, with a bigger, spacier sound, and towering guitar solo in the middle. But even when he’s experimenting on Vagabond Skies, Arthur plays it safe, and the song becomes dependent on the guitar solo instead of being built around it. Vagabond Skies, and much of Arthur’s other output this year, may have been better served by distilling them down to one release, honing the finer points—like the promising opener here “Slow Me Down”—into a more concise and energetic disc. Instead, Arthur shows us he doesn’t lack for output, but he may be short on ideas.