[18 January 2007]
Eliot Morris is the newest representative of the ever-lucrative “nice boy who plays guitar and sings about relationships and stuff” genre, plucked up by a major label (in this case, Universal Records) just in case his song gets played on Grey’s Anatomy and turns into a worldwide smash hit. On first listen, he sounds like a slam dunk—his voice is smoother than John Mayer’s, his songs are deeper than Jack Johnson’s, he’s younger than John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting, and the production on his debut album What’s Mine is Yours rivals machine products like Drake Bell. The songs are immediately approachable; he (or, perhaps, his producers) likes to incorporate all kinds of instruments into his songs (piano, slide guitar, banjo), and he constantly sounds like someone you think you heard before, but just can’t place who or where. This immediate sort of familiarity makes you want to like Eliot Morris, to identify and attach yourself to his songs of unrequited love and worldly statements.
Even with all of this working in his favor, however, it turns out to be difficult to truly fall for young Mr. Morris.
The problem lies partially in the vacant stare he seems intent on giving us on the cover of his album—sure, it’s a concept cover, and anything different probably would have strayed from that concept, but when the cover of a major label debut album makes your prize artist look like a statue, some marketing guy needs to get his hand slapped. This image is what you see in your mind as the album plays, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s because of the image or simply a function of overproduction and underperformance, but you rarely get the sense that Morris knows anything about the subjects of which he sings.
Case in point: the aurally lovely “Novocain”, in which Eliot emotes words like “I can’t feel anything, / I wanna feel you, / I can’t feel anythiiiiiiii-ing” over a backdrop that includes pianos, church bells, and multiple flavors of guitar. He’s singing the words on-key, he’s adding what sounds like the requisite amount of angst to his frustrated words, and the music is building behind him just as it should, but there’s something missing from Morris’s interpretation. Or, maybe there’s nothing missing, maybe it’s all too much, as if he’s trying too hard with all of that instrumentation behind him to convince us that he really means what he’s saying (really!). Still, you get the impression that if he were singing the phone book and he threw a few high notes in there, they would sound basically the same as what we hear in this most emotional of songs. Similarly, he sings things like “All things are new, / In this colorful world, / ... / There’s so much to do, / In this colorful world” (in the predictably-titled “This Colorful World”), and despite a well-placed string section, it’s hard to believe him. You want to believe him, because the sentiments are quite nice, but he just doesn’t have the raw emotion necessary to make such saccharine digestible.
Still, it might be precisely that quality of Morris’ voice that works against him on the more emotional tracks that works for him on some of the more subtly nuanced ones. “Balancing the World” is a lovely single candidate that propels itself forward like the most upbeat of late-‘90s MOR, telling a tale of an everyday Atlas with the world on her shoulders. When Morris sings such reassurances as the repeated “You are not alone” coda that concludes the song, it’s there that we can believe him, because even amongst the quick beats and strummed guitars and backing vocals, he’s calm, cool, and collected as ever, providing comfort in the storm. He does “wistful” well, too, singing things like “She smiles like sunlight shining, and, / Her face, like Saturdays” with the reminiscence of the most lovelorn of high school students. It’s actually quite endearing, and certainly a good pick for the top spot on Morris’s MySpace.
Unfortunately, Morris is not content with such simple sentiments, and most of the album finds him trying to dive into complexities that he simply has not learned to navigate as a songwriter—the choruses don’t catch, the emotions don’t register, and the listener is left cold, stuck in a morass of mid-tempo molasses.