At this point, the archetype of the laid-back, West Coast surf/skate rat turned laid-back, West Coast singer-songwriter is well worn. There’s an ostensible prototype in Jack Johnson, a former professional surfer who turned to acoustic soft rock after a career-ending accident. Then there’s the disciple, Matt Costa, a former professional skateboarder who turned to acoustic soft rock after a career-ending accident. A quick look at the bio of Nik Freitas—a former Thrasher photographer from SoCal turned laid-back singer-songwriter—suggests a third coming. Luckily, Freitas’ third full-length, Sun Down, quickly dispels these fears. Sure, it’s probably breezy, mellow, and carefree enough for the hackey sack-kicking Johnson/Costas crowd. But that’s where the similarities end. Freitas is far more interested in classic pop melodies and lush production and the mature, confident tunes on Sun Down wouldn’t feel out of place next to Paul Simon, the Beatles and Elliott Smith on your shelf.
Freitas wisely chooses to open the LP with the title track “Sun Down”, a contemplative tour of the ‘70s AM pop dial. “I want to stand / On the mountain that’s way up there / Connecting all the street lights shining / Heading off to light up / Who knows where,” Freitas sings over a steady acoustic strum and occasional bluesy interludes. The production is warm as is Freitas’ voice, a rich, self-assured croon that occasionally evokes late-period John Lennon. As a song, “Sun Down” serves as the perfect point of entry to Freitas’ world: wistful, relaxed and sentimental, the narrator could be looking down on either a sleepy California town or the album’s remaining nine tracks.
“Oh My God” throws a bit of a curve ball initially, beginning with the sounds of a saloon piano, a harmonica and an electro-theremin. The wobbly theremin is just the sort of eccentric touch that Elliott Smith might have added to an otherwise straightforward tune and the chorus—which finds that piano melody blossoming alongside Freitas’ blissful three-part harmonies—would feel right at home on either XO or Figure 8. “What You Become” sees Freitas stripping down the wall of sound to just a piano and drum machine and while the four-and-a-half-minute, slow-burning lament feels appropriate after three midtempo songs in a row, the lyrics leave a bit to be desired, consisting mostly of Freitas rattling off various solemn images and asking, “Is this what you’ve become?” Still, the lilting chorus of “Ooohs” that follows approximates a classical Chinese string melody closely enough to lend the song a somber, ghostly feel.
“Sophie” wants to serve up the sort of guy-and-his-guitar rock that characterized Ryan Adams’ early work, but unfortunately for Freitas, the mopey Sophie doesn’t sound nearly interesting enough to catch Adams’—let alone anyone else’s—eye. Halfway through, however, the song completely changes tone; big brassy horns take over, Freitas croons “Yeah” through clenched teeth and a chorus of voices shouts “Hey!” It sounds like Freitas is throwing the lovelorn Sophie a surprise party but it doesn’t seem to work: “Yes it’s been a while / And Sophie, you’re still bumming us all out / So goodbye / We hope you find some way to smile.” At the song’s close, Freitas is finally ready to concede, “Maybe its just you.”
By the time we reach the beginning of side B, Freitas has worked up the courage to make a grand statement. As its title suggests, “Love Around” finds him admitting to a very Lennon-esque philosophy: “I believe that there’s love around / Yes I am sure that there’s love around,” he sings, leading into a full choir reading of the same mantra at the song’s close. “See Me There” echoes with similar sentiments, with Freitas singing “Somewhere there’s pictures of / People who fell in love back then / And maybe it was true” over a warm, orchestral sweep that smacks of Jon Brion. At the end of the song, he finds that the answer was under his nose all along: “Drove up to visit my folks / Just to see if they were okay / There’s photos up when they were young / And to me, they still look the same.”
Going out on a quiet note, Freitas ends Sun Down with “Shhhh”, an understated, meditative ballad. Over the jazzy tumble of a ride and snare beat and a simple piano melody, Freitas extols the virtues of silence. “Even if they could hear you now / What difference would it make?” he asks in a falsetto before silencing the listener with a “Shhhh”.
Based on the songs on Sun Down, Nik Freitas’ closest cousin would seem to be Elliott Smith. Freitas obviously holds the Beatles in high regard, as the late Smith did and favors the same lush, warm sound that Smith spent the late part of his career working to capture. Unlike with Smith, however, there’s no undercurrent of darkness in Freitas’ songs: lyrically speaking, it seems that what you see is what you get. While this can make Freitas’ lyrics seem a bit shallow, especially when juxtaposed with such rich production, it also suggests that he possesses a maturity and restraint that belies his relatively young age. No, it doesn’t seem like Nik Freitas has quite reached his creative peak with Sun Down. If anything, though, that’s just one more reason to follow his career with great interest.