John Ralston: Sorry Vampire

[27 January 2008]

By Aarik Danielsen

John Ralston’s Vagrant Records bio stresses the intentionality and effort the Florida singer/songwriter put into his sophomore solo project, Sorry Vampire . According to the website, the album “began as just a few basic elements and eventually snowballed into over 50 songs with almost twice as many individual tracks on each song.” Sorry Vampire was “built to give the listener the experience of hearing something new with each repeated listen.”

After working with co-producers Michael Seaman, Jon Wilkins and a solid group of guest musicians (including former Wilco member Jay Bennett) to shape the album into the 12 cuts that remain, Ralston can be sure his work and sense of purpose paid off. Sorry Vampire is a beautiful album full of color that allows for fresh interpretation and the discovery of detail with each successive spin. On some projects, such deliberation leads to an overwhelming number of sounds and/or an overly slick product, but no such errors befall this album. While Sorry Vampire is not quite to the level of being a masterpiece, the album proves that Ralston may just be the type of artist who has a masterpiece in him.

The project is a mix of modern and retro rock influences, incorporating elements of very current electronic music and subdued folk into the record’s textured pop sound. Ralston and company do a fine job of paying attention to the little things with each seemingly minor element or detail contributing a sense of fullness to the whole. The most striking feature of the record is the production of the layered vocals, producing a Beach Boys-esque vibe to the lush and, at times, moving vocal tracking employed on songs such as “When I Was a Bandage,” “A Small Clearing” and “Where You Used to Sleep.” These songs possess a beauty that references those great Brian Wilson-crafted harmonies, but is fresh enough to be a unique part of Ralston’s vision.

Another of Ralston’s influences is evidenced when he sings alone or with less vocal decoration. Often, Ralston’s expressive yet relatively hushed voice brings to mind the memory of the great Elliott Smith, especially on “Lessons I & II,” “Ghetto Tested,” “Beautiful Disarmed” and “Second Hand Lovers”. And while there is nothing here musically or lyrically to suggest that Ralston could somehow fill the tremendous void felt in the center of the chests of those who loved Smith, his music is of the quality and maturity to garner respect and appreciation from those same people. Yet one never gets the sense that Sorry Vampire is imitative. It comes across more as the evoking of great acts within the distinctive framework Ralston has crafted. Album highlights include several of the aforementioned tracks as well as the more straightforward rock track “No One Loves You Like I Do” (a tune that sounds perfectly crafted for success on modern rock radio) and album opener “Fragile.”

Occasionally, a song or two veers a bit close toward the boundary lines of “emo” territory (after all this is a Vagrant Records release and Ralston has toured with the current crown prince of the genre, Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba). However, Ralston and company always rescue the song from the genre’s clutches with great production and tracking, keeping any of the songs from being clichéd. For example, the beginning of “The Only Evidence” makes it sound as if the tune could descend into relying on overused or formulaic emo/rock notions, but Ralston quickly heads in a different direction. The song becomes a mid-tempo folk/pop number with impact and is another of the album’s great moments.

Sorry Vampire is an album for those who can appreciate the beauty that is found both in simplicity and in ornate design. Ralston is indeed a good songwriter but he is also one of those performers who really give meaning to the term recording artist. The skill and invention employed in the making of this record do not go unnoticed and place the music world on notice for what is to come from Ralston.

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