[10 April 2006]
The mid-‘90s was a time when the music of folks like Edwin McCain was just what we needed. This was the time of Hootie and the Blowfish, the time of Sister Hazel and Deep Blue Something, the time when a sensitive singer-songwriter with a massive budget and major label production values was the antidote to the depression and angst of the Seattle sound and its imitators. Edwin McCain had one of the biggest hits of this reactionary display of overwhelming niceness with “I’ll Be”, a song that has gained new life in recent years as perhaps the most-auditioned song on that bastion of musical quality that we call American Idol. There’s good reason for that—it’s catchy as hell, for one, and it’s a brilliant showcase of just what McCain can do with his clean-but-appealingly-weathered voice. There’s a power behind that song, an urgency that would be awfully difficult to push away if, say, he were singing that song to you. If nothing else, all of those American Idol wannabes know which song got their high school girlfriends to melt before their eyes.
Since that tremendous hit, McCain has developed a following far smaller than the audience that happens to know “I’ll Be”, but also far more devoted to the songs that don’t necessarily have the pop appeal of that one song. McCain’s is an audience that appreciates his sensitivity and yearns for the days when his nice-guy pop rock was embraced by just about everyone.
All of that history makes an album like Lost in America a bit puzzling to these ears. Lost in America picks up the pace of McCain’s songwriting style, striving for a sort of Springsteen-lite, Mellencampian earthiness in its mid-tempo pop-rock tunes. Oddly enough, this new style is exemplified best by McCain’s newfound devotion to Vigilantes of Love, and particularly their 1993 album Welcome to Struggleville. Two songs from that 12-year-old album are covered here, accounting for a solid fifth of the album, and they’re the songs on which McCain adds the most growl to his voice and the most distortion to his guitars. “Welcome to Struggleville” itself is one of Vigilante Bill Mallonee’s best songs, and McCain’s devotion to the original material is obvious in his near-verbatim reading of it. McCain’s version of “Babylon”, which actually closes the album, is fairly surprising coming from him, as he actually lets loose with the electric guitars and the newfound gravel in his voice, borrowing from Mallonee an aggressive style that could serve him well on future albums.
Regrettably, Mallonee can’t write all of McCain’s songs, and McCain himself is in a bit of a rut on Lost in America. Every single one of the songs on which McCain gets a writing credit is a mid-tempo song that doesn’t propel itself so much as amble along, making its observations quietly (or, sometimes, sorta kinda loudly) before drifting off into the fading sunlight. Songs like “The Kiss”, “Black and Blue”, and “Bitter and Twisted” all kind of blend together, songs about self-doubt and distant love and all that singer-songwritery stuff that we’ve come to expect. The songs of McCain’s that do stand out are the ones in which his attempts at Americana are most obvious—perhaps not coincidentally, these also sound like the most obvious choices for singles. “Gramercy Park Hotel” opens the album with one of those cumulative observations that takes the history of a place and relates that history to the person telling it (McCain likens himself to Babe Ruth and an organ grinding monkey in just a few short minutes), while the album’s title track is a far less effective song (yet a readymade single choice) that attacks the materialism of modern American culture. It’s a worthy target, I’ll admit, but trite couplets like “She got a handful of pills to improve her mood/ Liposuction, big fake boobs” don’t help his case.
It is, in fact, another songwriter who once again breaks McCain out of his midtempo prison, as McCain’s bandmate Pete Riley pens the only ballad on the entire disc. “Losing Tonight” is just the sort of slow tune that McCain can put all of his emotion into, making it a welcome respite from the more detached leanings and observations of the rest of the album. It’s not nearly as catchy or vocally impressive as that other more famous ballad, but in the context of the rest of Lost in America, it’s really rather nice.
Unfortunately, what it takes the final step in proving is that McCain, left to his own devices, is of late a rather middling songwriter, one whose attempts at adding “edge” to his work are only homogenizing it, leading to what is ultimately a fairly monotonous listening experience. Should McCain heed the lessons taught by the songs he didn’t write, he’ll have plenty of advice to guide him toward a much more dynamic next effort. For now, we’re left with Lost in America, an album destined to be relegated to the dustbin with those Del Amitri and Vertical Horizon albums you’ve pretty much forgotten about by now.