John Ralston obviously loves power pop and melodies, so what could be better than combining the two for a truly stellar debut album? Fans of everyone from Eliott Smith to XTC would be wise to remember the name.
John Ralston was chosen to be Dashboard Confessional's support act for a string of dates this year. Opening acts often aren't quite on par with headliners and are often newcomers, with perhaps a hit single or a hopefully successful commercial and critical album on the way. Fortunately, whatever happens with this album, Ralston has made a record that will even win the notice of hacks who listen to 20 or 30 albums a week. With an ear for melody and with a knack for creating one incredibly punchy pop rock gem after another, Ralston wastes little time to make you want to jump on board for "No Catcher in the Rye". While it might not be particularly jaw-dropping, the tune's melodic nature brings to mind a cross between Joe Jackson and the late Elliott Smith, before both try their hand at remaking The Beatles' "Day in the Life". It's basically an intro to the album, but shows just a hint of what Ralston has in store.
And what is in store is a fabulous pop rock number called "It's Not Your Fault" that makes you want to purse your lips a la Jagger and bob your head like, er, any head-bobbing person would. Backed by a drummer and with one guitar note strummed, the tune kicks into hand-clapping gear with a great tempo and continues to soar. Somewhat of a cross between Sloan and Tom Petty, Ralston perfectly hits the mark with this one. You're almost afraid that he's plateaued so early that it might be all downhill from here -- but it's not, not by a long shot. "Hang a Sign" is initially piano-based and Beatles-tinged, a rudimentary arrangement that then adds drums to create a winding and lovable nugget of a tune, again eerily recalling the late Mr. Smith. Think of something David Gray or Ed Harcourt might attempt with mass over-production and you'll get the gist of what's behind this track.
Ralston doesn't stray too far from what he knows he can knock out of the park, and it's this subtle, hushed tone that makes "When We Are Cats" instantly likable and appealing. Here Ralston harmonizes with himself as he utters each line just above a whispered hand-over-his-mouth volume. This works as a nice lead-in to the mid-tempo "I Believe In Ghosts", a song similar in nature to "It's Not Your Fault" but featuring a slightly slicker chorus. Ralston also brings to mind XTC's Andy Partridge when he lets his pipes loose during the bridge. If there's one flaw, albeit tiny, with the song, it could be how rather curt the fade out is, as Ralston stops when he is extremely far ahead. Ralston changes the mood again with a sparse, earnest and haunting singer-songwriter tune called "No One Said It Was Easy", which revolves around the game of life. The only problem with this song is how it jumps into a mid-tempo roots romp that comes across like the kind of tune the Goo Goo Dolls might have perfected at one point.
This Rzeznick-ish vibe continues on the melancholic and sullen string-laced "Gone Gone Gone", which is bittersweet with a dose of vitriol thrown in for good measure. But if there's one song that doesn't quite hit the mark it's the similarly moody and bleak "Time For Me to Ruin Everything", which finds Ralston relying on piano and a downbeat to get his point across. Fortunately the album returns to power-pop glory with the Westerberg-ian "Keep Me", a foot-stomper that sounds like Soul Asylum in their heyday. And the homestretch is just as strong, although one might take a possible pass on the gloomy, string-laced "Avalanche", which for some reason brings to mind the Smashing Pumpkins' "Disarm". "Our Favorite Record Skips" rounds the record off with a dance beat and some music-box dancer melodies on top of that. Needle Bed is a debut that should garner some well-deserved praise and buzz, and possibly even "it" list status for Ralston, whatever the hell "it" is.