Soft piano-based pop music has a bad reputation. It’s conventionally considered cocktail jazz for the unthinking masses, background noise for those otherwise engaged, sonic wallpaper for social conversations. It’s considered light fare that ranges from, at best, the pseudo-sophisticated hits of Billy Joel to the schmaltzy stylings of Barry Manilow. Do we really need another “She’s Always a Woman to Me” or “Mandy” to get us through the day?
Maybe? For all of its faults, piano pop is like comfort food. It soothes. Like macaroni and cheese, there’s some substance and nutritional elements. It’s not junk food. It can stick to your ribs and fulfill one’s needs. The trick is to find the balance between texture and flavor. If the sauce is too gooey or the pasta too chewy, the result can be a gloppy mess. Gabe Dixon’s latest release, Lay It on Me, features the tasty traits of piano pop: catchy hooks, sentimental lyrics, and a personal voice, in the right balance.
Despite the record’s title, he doesn’t “lay it on” too thickly. He’s a confident keyboardist who brightly strikes the keys without being precious. His melodies sparkle but have an underlying seriousness that grounds them emotionally. Dixon’s lyrics may get heavy but avoid cheesy melodrama in favor of meaningful reflections. They may be love-heavy—this is pop—but avoid being overly earnest.
Consider Dixon’s duet with multiple Grammy Award nominee blues artist Susan Tedeschi, the bouncy “I Got Your Love (You’ve Got Mine)”. The two performers sing in a lively, straightforward manner and declare their affection in sweet voices about how good they feel. There’s nothing heavy or particularly powerful going on. The emotional resonance is like a summer wind. The breezy instrumental contributions complement the fresh feelings.
While this isn’t a concept album, there is a beginning and end to the record. It begins with a quiet 30‑second solo piano intro from which the album gets its name. When Dixon starts to sing, and the next track begins, the pace picks up. Dixon gets into a groove and lets loose as he croons about the healing power of love. “Happiness is a state of mind,” he sings, but it’s clear he’s more interested in physical affection than the spiritual kind. While the narrator expresses sincerity, as the song continues, one can’t help but wonder what his true goal is. Lovers should be friends, no doubt, but the singer seems more interested in seduction than amity. Dixon’s light-hearted piano accompaniment suggests he’s less than earnest—but then again, being horny doesn’t mean one isn’t being truthful.
The other tracks playfully address romance and such from a variety of perspectives. The final song is the most earnest and perhaps the best cut on the album. The “Last Train Home” is just Dixon and his piano ruminating about the difference between staying out all night partying and or going home when the bar closes. The narrator may have gotten increasingly mature, but the longing for more remains. The tone is bittersweet. Dixon understands the night can’t last forever and morning always comes too soon.