If mellow, soothing soft pop is your thing, you need to hear Eric Anders and his engaging debut album Not at One. This 39-year-old soft-voiced tenor has come late to the music game, but no matter. His brand of honest soul-baring balladeering is most welcome, and has drawn critical comparisons to the music of Chris Isaak, David Gray, Sondre Lerche, and Nick Drake, among others.
But all those references fall short in describing the precise and gentle arrangements that seem so perfect on these dozen tracks. Anders and Richard Barron seem to make the right production choices throughout, serving up intelligent instrumental scores remarkably well suited to the sensitivity inherent in the songs and vocals.
Anders discovered his vocal talent a few years back during some reluctant karaoke. Soon after, he teamed up with singer/songwriter Mark O'Bitz and began writing songs (this was in December 2001). Many of those songs appear on Not At One (as do several from a collaboration with guitarist Benedikt Bohm). In the span of a few short years, Anders has somehow managed to capture in song the kind of spirit guaranteed to move listeners. His restless compositions speak directly from the heart.
Anders (son of Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders) is a bit of an overachiever. He earned his master's in English from Harvard, got his first doctorate (in English) from the University of Florida. He received his second doctorate (as a clinical psychoanalyst) from Los Angeles' Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis as he was recording this album (but eventually wound up suspending his private practice in order to give more of his attention to completing the recording process).
I suppose he's used to doing a number of things at once. While pursuing his master's degree, he served as an officer in the Air Force (while playing soccer at the Air Force Academy), though he wasn't great at the whole "officer" thing. He is fairly good at this music thing, however.
The CD leads off with "Leave You Doubtful", a sweet balladic confession of love amidst trust issues: "I'll tell you all that I can bear / And I'll give you more than my fair share / But I'll love you more than I'd ever dare / And we'll hope it's always / Always me that's there". This track features fine guitar work from Randy Ray Mitchell and great cello from Guenevere Measham.
"Halcyon Days" is another winner, building from a quiet verse, a man eager to escape the drama of stormy relationships and find calm instead: "If it's alright with you / I think I'll stay here on my own / Try to make myself a home / If it's alright with you / I think I'll find another way / Try to turn these into halcyon days". There's some outstanding Hammond organ here from Arlan Schierbaum.
Anders's vocal skills on "Wearily" remind me of great folk-rock vocals of bygone days. The soft guitars interact with Measham's cello to create a perfect mood for this man doomed to watch the women he loves leave him time and again.
Most of the Chris Isaak references might be traced to "Struggle", which sounds like it could find a home on any Isaak CD. It has that wistful, doleful ache to it, soulful and quiet and spare, yet full of emotion as the singer battles against insanity in his quest for love. It's the kind of wonderful song where you close your eyes and can easily imagine what the video might look like -- great arrangements, perfectly executed.
"The Wisdom of Kisses" features excellent upright bass from Warren Kaye and some beautifully restrained backing vox from Silvia Ryder and Sue Willett. Again, Anders shows his abilities to create gorgeously poignant soft pop masterpieces.
Randy Ray Mitchell's expressive slide guitar propels "Loveless Lame", a justification/rationale for ill-behaved friends: "And they're not easy friends / No love to be found / They're not good at nice / But they can't help hang around / But they're not to blame / It's happened all their lives / They're the loveless lame / And they're still making ties".
Another near-perfect track is "We Went Down" (featuring great backing harmonies from Benedikt Bohm). Here is a touching, fond reminiscence about the days when it was a struggle for lovers to get a little privacy: "We went down behind Murphy's fence / To the creek / Went across / Then headed downstream for a mile / Walked down the tracks / To that big tree / And then down there we were all alone".
If you don't like songs rife with emotion, just skip the title track. Here Anders again relies on Measham's extraordinary cello work (an amazingly emotive instrument) to back his own heartbreak (the press release lets us know that he went through a difficult break-up while he was writing the songs for this CD, and I'd imagine this one is the hard proof). Anders's vocals really sell the lyrics here, soft and plaintive: "I'm not at one with many things / It's all out of focus as I sing / Taken back by all of this that's new / It's bound to break / If I fall / Something... seems so true / It's nothing without you".
Keith Mitchell's hypnotic drum beats are the catalyst to "Never Enough", a tale of a couple that's been together long enough to grow distant, hoping things could be like they once were before. "Leaves Me Cold" is another spare and haunting melody, this one about thinking while in the pool. Standouts here include Louis Durra's piano and Silvia Ryder's backing vocals.
"Say Goodbye Again" isn't as strong as the other songs, though it's pleasant enough musically (particularly Arlan Schierbaum's Hammond solo). A short musical reprise of "We Went Down" finishes the CD.
There's nothing about Not at One that gives it away as a debut from an untested rookie in the music biz. Instead, Eric Anders and his fellow musicians arrive on the scene sounding like old friends you've known for years.
There's a bounty of mid-tempo poise from song to song, as Anders explores the realms of troubled folks and vexing internal issues. From this pain comes musical pleasure, a soothing balm of genuine, deeply compelling explorations masquerading as pleasant songs. A second CD is in the works, and if Not at One is any indication of what's in store, I eagerly await its arrival.