[16 March 2010]
Tom McRae’s story is an unusual one. After all, the guy didn’t release his first LP until he was 31. After a standout performance at UK’s Meltdown Festival in 2000, McRae quickly became the apple of UK music critics’ eye with his soft, confessional acoustic tunes that garnered comparisons to Nick Drake and perhaps more appropriately, David Gray. From there, things began to take off. He was nominated for a Mercury Prize. In 2003, recorded his second album with members of Blur and Martha Wainwright. On his third album, All Maps Welcome, he moved to California and ended up opening up for Tori Amos across the UK in support of the record. Now at the ripe age of 40, McRae has released his fifth LP in ten years, The Alphabet of Hurricanes and one question has to be asked: Why haven’t you heard of this guy?
Admittedly, that question is mainly for stateside readers. It could be possible that McRae has a large following. Although, judging from recent search engine results, this isn’t the case. This makes even more sense taking into consideration the mish-mash of styles and sounds on The Alphabet of Hurricanes and could be a key to unlock his lack of popularity. Opening track “Still Love You” is a promising opener featuring the quiet strums of a ukulele decorated by McRae’s fragile voice and a sparse piano. It’s straight out of the indie-folk’s Lo-Fi Handbook. From there, though, things end up all over the place—much like a hurricane. “Summer of John Wayne” starts out similar to the album’s opener as McRae sets up some vivid imagery memories of lost summers and a fleeting youth.
However, all goes to hell when the big production tricks show up. Banging pianos, squealing guitars, strings—when did Leonard Bernstein show up? What started out as a Bon Iver imitation ends as montage music for a mid-week, soap-series. That isn’t the only track on Alphabet that would make teenage girls (or house-wives) clutching their Robert Pattinson portraits closely, melt from the sappy and highly predictable production that paints a heavy, tear-filled bulk of this record. “American Spirit” is a sentimental ballad with the same elements—horns, building cymbals, strings—helping you indicate when to cry, when to wipe your face, when to look off into the distance strong and proud. “Please” isn’t much different with its chanting male-chorus over huge, marching drums and claps that is so tacky and over-the-top, it would make Tears for Fears blush.
The most surprising thing about Alphabet is that McRae shows promise but seems to continually lose focus, often within the confines of a single song. When he isn’t attempting to appeal to the AOR crowd, McRae seems be stuck in an Americana-folk groove that with a little more exploration could’ve yielded the same, promising results demonstrated on the album’s opener. Unfortunately, these results never repeat but are hinted at by the refreshingly sparse but incomplete “Can’t Find You” and the simple, upbeat “Best Winter” found on the last, second-half of the record.
Ironically, if Alphabet proves anything, it is that McRae is very much a product of the ‘90s. This makes sense since those were the years that marked McRae’s 20s—even if he never released an album until the 2K’s. It also is a good reason for why McRae isn’t a household name despite his initial, critical praise. Unfortunately, nearly ten years after his debut, McRae seems unable to move forward. For fans of those unabashedly earnest and heartfelt records that was filling up the charts between grunge singles nearly 15 to 20 years ago, Alphabet might come as a needed relief from today’s bearded, lo-fidelity folk stars spewing abstract poetics. For the rest of us, McRae’s release is just too dated and inflated to take seriously.