A few years back, Peng Guohui, the principal of Jindao Middle School in China, toured the United States, examining the differences between Chinese and American methods of teaching youth. One thing in particular that caught his eye was the difference in the way math is taught. Chinese teachers focus much more on drilling and rote repetition, whereas American teachers tend to guide students through a problem, teaching them the skills to solve it, rather than simply its solution. The offshoot, according to Peng, is that Chinese students have better fundamentals, mastering certain computational abilities years before their American counterparts, but Americans are able to apply more creative solutions to problems.
If Sam Bisbee is indeed the son of a math teacher, as his latest album implies, his father might well come from the Chinese school of thought on teaching. Bisbee is an eminently capable singer-songwriter, a man with an ear for a catchy hook, an eye for song structure, and a playful sense of humor to boot. He certainly doesn’t suffer from a surfeit of ideas, though, something that tends to hurt him as Son of a Math Teacher moseys along.
The first clue is the presence of “Oxygen”, the title track from his 2006 full-length, with no substantial changes. It’s a fine if fairly straightforward bit of acoustic pop, just Bisbee’s unobtrusive, polished ruminations about the necessity of living life to the fullest over simply strummed guitar. In short, it’s nothing especially noteworthy, and its inclusion here seems to serve no purpose other than to bump up the track listing.
It’s a problem that extends to the new material Bisbee has included here. Bisbee rarely moves beyond the topic of love, and though he can occasionally bring something new and interesting to the table, over 14 songs it starts to feel a bit flat, occasionally as exciting and dynamic as a Mad Minute.
Bisbee’s saving grace are his fundamentals, though, especially when he stretches them beyond singer-songwriter tropes. “Never Fall in Love” is a Stars-ish duet that rides a perky bass line, stuttering drums, and a triumphant organ to light-dancey bliss, the upbeat backing adding a nice counterpoint to lines like “Four billion people waiting for one / Out of all the stars we found the sun / Doesn’t matter how hard I try / All the best things fall from this life”. He takes a similar tack on “This Is the Day”, which overcomes a line like “Every day is the day for falling in love with you” with a rising conclusion, synth strings and boops building towards a kind of ecstacy that underscores his love-talk perfectly. He can also make the simple work, as on the slow shuffle of “Vermont”. Easy strums and piano plonks work with Bisbee’s hurt, relentlessly rhythmic vocals to nurse his open wounds while he attempts to find some kind of salvation in the quotidian specifics of home. It’s easily the album’s emotional high point, stronger for its stripped down presentation.
But the problem is something Bisbee points to himself in the penultimate “You Me We and Us”: “I’ve written so many songs about you I don’t know what else to say”, he croons breathily, without really realizing that maybe it’s a sign he should move on. Love isn’t really central to Bisbee’s songwriting as it is crucial: without it, he’d have nothing to do but strum his guitar. You can give him the fact that a good chunk of all music is about love, but he doesn’t seem to have too much new to say about it, and ability can only take you so far.
He’s certainly capable, but Bisbee could benefit greatly from an injection of creative new ideas. Too often, Son of a Math Teacher feels like a drill in music, a rote exploration of the basics that never reaches for anything more.