Since this appears to be Boston’s year (curses reversed and then some), it’s not a big surprise to find a Bostonian making great strides on the rock/pop musical front as well. Bowman’s second self-released album, Living To Dream, is a sensitive and melodic paean to the daily throes of complex emotions we often find ourselves caught within. With great style, the singer/songwriter has elevated his game with these fourteen new tracks, some of which were produced or recorded by former Letters To Cleo bassist Scott Reibling, now a highly respected producer in his own right (American Hi-Fi, Nina Gordon).
The sound is clean and controlled, yet hard-edged enough to convey a sense of live performance. Don’t let the boyish good looks of Bill Bowman fool you; he’s far more than a pretty face. This is a man who writes compelling songs that unravel patiently, building in structure and intensity all along.
In a smart move, Bowman enlisted a lot of local musical talent to accompany him. Among those whose talents are on display here are former Wheat bassist Bob Melanson, drummer Gabe Cabral (Johnny A.), bassist Ed Valaskus (The Gentlemen), guitarists Paul Amenta (Wrench) and Charlie O’Neal (Must), and keyboardists Tom Smith (Elcodrive) and Dave Ramsey (Swinging Steaks). These musicians come together as a tight unit, a cohesive whole in the service of Bowman’s music.
The radio-ready rocker “Save Me” opens the proceedings, a man desperate for outside assistance, searching for an answer that he cannot seem to find. Bowman shouts out the lyrics atop an infectious melody.
My current favorite track is “Enemy”, another of those tunes you can’t seem to get out of your head. Again we get a narrator on the verge of unstoppable catastrophe, stuck in the habit of creating mountains he’ll then have to climb, who wants nothing more than to get out of his own way: “Sometimes I see the deepest parts of you and me / Sometimes I see that I’m my own worst enemy”.
Bowman goes into a reflective Lennonish mode with “So Many Ways to Say Goodbye”, employing effective mellotron nuances amid the guitars and drums. Bowman shows he’s no stranger to the feelings behind a sad farewell: “So many ways to hide it / So many ways to cry / So many ways to say goodbye”.
“Scream” is another tight rocker that builds gradually into one of those feel-good sing-along arena rockers, a call to arms to enliven a dull life through heightened decibels. Similarly, “Get Some” also trades on the rocking tradition, doing a fine job of distilling a prom night’s promises and hormonal desires amid plenty of guitar.
Bowman is fond of songs that build gradually. “Something’s Wrong” is an example of this, following a guitar line into dulcet harmonies and an oft-repeated chorus (okay, it’s fairly obvious that something’s gone wrong). Still, it’s a well-wrought track.
“What I Don’t Know” is very Beatle-esque pop. This ultra-melodic number features nice harmonies on the chorus, but stick around for the stunningly pretty vocal and guitar-laden middle bridge — you’ll be glad you did. It’s phenomenal. Another gorgeous track is “All This”, spinning out from a simple guitar riff and letting love lead the way out from a personal darkness.
“Alright” is another reflective number, examining the lies we tell ourselves about how things will change: “and you realize that there’s more to love, so you try to keep holdin’ on”. This one reminds me of REM’s earlier songs in some respects (though the middle bridge is very Beatle-esque).
In spite of a number of upbeat rockers, the disc largely is populated with melodic mid-tempo ballads. “Give You My Heart Tonight” is a good one, featuring great bass work from Melanson and sweet guitar fills that echo the heartfelt emotions of the song.
“Ordinary Life” really spotlights Bowman’s superb emotive vocals (he studied with renowned vocal coach Mark Baxter). While this is a well-arranged band effort, parts of the song show how well the man can do with mere vocals and guitar (and, after all, he did serve his time performing his songs in the T-stations of Boston). This song bemoans the fate of an ordinary life, and recommends the dreamer’s alternative: “I’m dreamin’ today / Maybe dream my life away . . . / With no school to learn, no job that earns, phony gas chamber with a love I’m trying to burn . . .”
“Thanksgiving” is another personal winner in the folk rock storytelling tradition. He’s headed down south (perhaps returning to Maryland after spending time at Berklee College of Music) and eager to see his small town boulevard and his old love. Any way you slice this nostalgic nugget, it’s deliciously filling holiday fare.
“Upside Down” covers some similar subject territory as other songs here, talking about how life is making him crazy, his head “turning ’round” and such, eager to start living the dream.
“Nothing” ends the CD in fine fashion, a full group effort featuring some fine guitar by Bowman and Paul Amenta, some tasty bass from Ed Valuskas, and more fine drums from Gabe Cabral. The sweet coda mixes sounds from Dave Ramsay and Bowman.
Bowman intentionally keeps the lyrics abstract throughout, choosing to capture the introspective essence behind true tales in each of these songs, yet he avoids crossing the line into overly maudlin sentiments. While the man can rock, his storytelling seems firmly rooted in a more folk/balladic tradition. There also are hints of musical kinship to the likes of Owsley, Del Amitri, and even some Tom Petty at times.
He’s very much in control here, overseeing a quality product from track to track, with no filler. What’s more, his beautifully expressive voice elevates the songs above the fray of merely good pop/rock. Bowman, Scott Reibling, and Drew Allison manage to capture the charisma and talent that accompanies the fine songwriting.
Talent like Bowman’s deserves to be heard. With Living to Dream, Bowman successfully reverses the musical curse of the sophomore jinx, and does so with melodic talent and mature aplomb. This is a confident, accomplished album, and one that should bring the man well-deserved acclaim (no need to wait 86 years for that, please).