Barton Carroll has kept himself busy in the shadows of other bands — playing with Crooked Fingers, Azure Ray, Micah P. Hinson, and Dolorean — but it’s high time that his solo discs start getting the attention they deserve. He recorded his self-titled debut in 1999, but it went unreleased until about two years after 2006’s Love & War (itself recorded in 2001) made some critical headway. So the picture you get of Carroll is of a songwriter plugging along, improving his craft despite whatever uncertainties the record industry might offer. That written-first/released-second disc is a solid enough affair, as far as singer-songwriter discs go, but Love & War made it clear that Carroll’s talent was growing by leaps and bounds. Love & War showcased a witty songwriter who was as comfortable with a jaunty melody as he was with a dark thought. A catchy song like “Superman” promised unwavering loyalty with just a touch of creepy codependency, while “Small Thing” was an old woman’s stark and horrifying tale of being raped as a young girl during wartime.
New effort Together You and I is definitely a continuation of Carroll’s tour through the wry shadow world of his mind, but also finds him indulging in idiosyncrasies that push and pull against the melodies of his songs. There’s an extra level of playfulness that goes beyond the tried-and-true method of marrying a happy melody to a sad story (best shown here by the love/hate tale of two brothers in “Shadowman”), and a restlessness that seems to push Carroll past the unadulterated catchiness of much of Love & War. The elongated syllables throughout “Rich As a Rolling Stone”, the weaving of spoken and sung lyrics in “Do You Want to Get Out of Here”, the title track’s classical duet format — moments like these evoke his fondness for songwriters like Cole Porter as much as the playful use of horns and woodwinds throughout Together You and I. Shimmery guitar gives “Do You Want to Get Out of Here” a one-too-many stride as it progresses from a bar to a diner where “they serve the lonesome and the weak / And the jukebox plays low and sweet” and onward to an apartment and a dawn that’s announced by a bright blast of guitar. Just as a listener starts feeling the buoyancy of a smooth melody, there’s often something to nudge the song a little out of its comfort zone.
If Carroll’s songwriting playfulness weren’t enough to accomplish that, it’s safe to say that his lyrics would. More often than not, Carroll’s songs are about relationships — relationships with complications. The title track is a conversation between an imprisoned man and his woman outside; “Shadowman” is awash in cancer, jealousy, and regret; “Past Tense” uses wordplay to portray the class struggle between a female professor and her lover; and “Let’s Get On With the Illusion” finds a pair approaching a less than ideal situation with pragmatism. The most optimistic cut on Together You and I might be the lead-off track “The Poor Boy Can’t Dance”, which features the most jovial blend of saxophone, clarinet, and flute to hit a pop song in a long time. Yet even then the narrator’s whiskey-fueled bravado at a wedding reception is hampered by the title affliction.
Carroll is often compared to Freedy Johnston. That comparison is somewhat apt, especially if you’re talking about Johnston’s excellent This Perfect World disc. Both share a keen ear for melody and an even keener eye for detail. But that comparison works only as a starting point, as with each album Carroll obviously pursues his own muse. Love & War seemed a perfect sound for Carroll to settle into for a while, but Together You and I finds him already pushing at the edges to create something that teases a little more, but which is every bit as satisfying in the long run.