Jon McLaughlin: Promising Promises

[4 September 2012]

By Stephen Foster

Somewhere in the Middle

Artistic expression does not have to be difficult or complex in order to be deemed valuable or, for lack of a better word, good, or good for us. If that were the case, most of the new music that comes out these days would need dismissing as bad and quite probably a waste of time and without any merit. But that is clearly not true.

Nor should attempts at art be too simplistic and elementary to challenge our experience of it, but where it is that does not make it, for lack of a better word, bad. It might be consistently artless, but that does not mean we can’t enjoy it.

In fact, it often means we’re more inclined to enjoy the mediocre rather than the complex (highly artistic) piece simply because we don’t want to put the work into experiencing it. We’re lazy like that. We like what we like, and most of the time the art of the thing, or the appeal, lies in the fact that it exists squarely in the middle of the road—not Radiohead all the time but neither all Carly Rae Jepson, either.

Perhaps these examples aren’t fair to either. There are times when nothing but Radiohead will do and the same goes, I’m guessing, for Ms. Jepson. There’s no doubt which of the two will last. But the point is that we listen to a masterpiece and appreciate, if not always enjoy, it; and we hear the opposite and enjoy it while not needing to appreciate it, recognizing in it only ephemeral and momentary pleasure. Both experiences can leave us satisfied but perhaps not, in the case of the latter (Jepsen), exalted. And that’s ok.

(By the way, this argument will get tripped up when we look at it cross-genre. Some might say there’s no real comparison between Radiohead and Carly Rae because the former is consciously art-rock—mostly—while the latter is pop music, pure and simple. I’m making the comparison somewhat arbitrarily to prove that they represent extremes, and that many times we find ourselves looking for something between the two.)

Which leads to Jon McLaughlin’s new CD, Promising Promises, a solid, middle of the road effort that pleases in an easy going sort of way.  It makes for good driving (or background) music, if you will. It’s fully likeable and stands up to repeated listening, and that’s no small praise.

Promising Promises is the result of a dispute with McLaughlin’s once-major label over who should produce a record that would be called Forever if Ever. Ending the dispute on his own, McLaughlin abandoned the label and self-produced Forever if Ever. Along comes Razor & Tie Records, which wanted to release the album under a new name and with a few added songs—thus was born Promising Promises. It’s an earnest (sometimes overly) collection of songs that often sound similar, so much so that, in places, it’s hard to tell where one ends and the next begins. But in the end, that has more to do with consistency than with repetition.

Because Promising Promises is essentially two albums there’s plenty of music here (12 songs running nearly an hour) and it allows McLaughlin ample time to demonstrate his wordsmithing strengths, which exceed his vocal capabilities.

On “If Only I”, for example, he proves he can turn a nice lyric:

In this old cafe
I come here every day and watch you
I watch you
Sometimes I hear your voice
Over all the noise you bleed through
And I hear you

Slowly all the faces turn to yours
Like no one else exists anymore
I’d talk to you if only I could speak
And I’d dream of you if I could fall asleep

People say love is hell
A shiny prison cell where time stops
But the door’s unlocked
Now you’re a part of me
Trust me I’ve tried to leave
I’ve tried to walk
But I’m all talk…

Promising Promises is by turns both warm and solemn (as above) and vivacious, and its highlight is McLaughlin’s duet with Sara Bareilles on the wistful “Summer Is Over”. Perhaps it’s telling (McLaughlin’s nondescript vocals) that the disc’s second best song, Maybe It’s Over, is also a duet, this time with Xenia Martinez.

All in all, Promising Promises is a solid, well-intentioned release and holds more than a few delights for the listener.

Other album highlights include: “You Never Know”, “Falling”, and “My Girl Tonight”.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/162637-jon-mclaughlin-promising-promises/