For me, two things that stand out about David Mead (and I'm not counting his great hair): his impeccable voice and his fine songwriting. The good news is that both are on display with his new and most intimate 11-song collection Indiana.
Warm and wistful, this winsome new album presents thoughts in a straightforward manner, reflecting the traveling life of a solo musician struggling to play and survive, maturing and pondering what insights fate presents. As such, there's plenty of quietly contemplative pop, sweet, honest and insightful without being overly sappy or treacly. This is the gentleman crooner personified, charming you with a voice that's liquid gold.
Mead found himself without a record deal following his first two releases (The Luxury of Time and Mine and Yours) and perhaps a bit burnt out in general from life in NYC. Realizing how the arts and music community of the big apple promotes a kind of "age 22 preserved unto infinity", Mead began to miss not growing older. As such, he decided to return to Nashville, back to family and friends and the very places that started him on his musical journey.
Joining up with producer/cellist David Henry (Josh Rouse, Guster) and old musical friends Brad Jones, Marc Pisapia, and Joe Pisapia, Mead chose to record a bunch of songs written over the years that he truly liked. Without any record execs exerting pressure for some kind of massive single, Mead and friends could relax in the service of the songs.
The end results reflect this ease -- there's a feeling of familiar comfort that comes across in the soft acoustic arrangements and musical performances -- as though this is some kind of personal gift from Mead to the listener.
The album opens with the guitar strains of "Nashville" relating and reflecting on that bittersweet return home: "Going back to Nashville, thinking about the whole thing / Guess you gotta run sometimes / Maybe I'm a fast train rolling down the mountain / Watching all my life go by." Mead's serene tenor conveys the mixed emotions well -- that it's not New York, that it's safe and warm where nothing ever happens, but ultimately, that he loves the place.
Another mid-tempo ballad, "You Might See Him" is chock full of emotional mystery -- alluding to an enigmatic and uncertain "him". Mead's beautiful voice soars here, describing this walking paradox of a man: "You might hear him begging for forgiveness / Dishing out some nonsense that only brings you down / And you might hear him singing like his mother / A distant little number that barely makes a sound / He might be walking on water / He might be floating through air / But through the darkest reminders / He will be hoping you're there."
The title track is one of the more upbeat numbers here, a tale of hard knocks on the road touring, calling his sugar from out in the middle of nowhere, telling her how much he misses her, accompanied by the weepy lap steel guitar of Joe Pisapia. This infectious tune perfectly captures that empty expanse and the loneliness behind it: "I'm pulling off at a truck stop / It's a glamorous life / Indiana's the wrong place to be breaking apart / On a road that goes on forever / Like a hole in your heart."
The other irresistibly catchy number here is the sweet "Oneplusone" (complete with handclaps and more). Here Mead explores the upper registers his voice allows, complete with harmonies, in describing a couple joining together in growing up and leaving the safety of family to face the world as a team (fitting, I suppose, since Mead has recently gotten married).
Two of Mead's older chestnuts finally have made it through to a studio release. The whimsical pseudo-gospel of "Bucket of Girls" presents a musical celebration of feminine wiles: "Diving for pearls, I ran out of air / Swam through the world of bosoms and hair / Pristine she was, but weren't they all / Mercy, what god gave a girl."
"New Mexico" serves up the clip-clop percussion of a slow horse, with western flair and easy charm, speaking the praises of this dreamy place of cowboys where the air is clean. The vocals and style here remind me of the best of Martin Sexton (a high compliment indeed).
The haunting "Beauty" presents Mead's voice in its best light (on a song that shows the continuing maturity of his songwriting craft). Here, piano and electric guitar serve as accents to heighten the fact that beauty draws us, empty as it might be.
"Only a Girl" builds from mere vocals and acoustic guitar into a horn-laced anthem of sorts, a man haunted by memories and longing for something that sadly, he cannot have: "It's a lonely ol', lonely ol' world / And you're only, you're only a girl / Such a beautiful mystery / The gravity pulling a boy to the ends of the earth."
"Ordinary Life" is another disarming jewel of a song, the narrator singing with a sparkle in his eye, wanting past excitement back, fearing the boredom of pedestrian routine, wondering how he got in this place and looking for a woman to save him from it all.
Mead presents an unexpected acoustic cover that turns out to be a pleasant surprise in Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" (actually by Steve Porcaro and John Bettis). Mead makes the song his own by slowing it down and throwing himself into it emotionally. The overall effect is wonderful.
The album closes with "Queensboro Bridge", quite a different look at the structure that made Simon and Garfunkel feel so groovy way back when. Here, strings flavor this somber paean to the island of Manhattan as prison, an "island of vagabonds, a stop on the way to be free". It's a beautiful song about being left there while the entire world goes on, settling for less perhaps but always waiting.
David Mead proves he's only getting better -- and while those looking to be rocked might be put off by this relatively mid-tempo collection, there's no denying the quality of each of these special songs. His voice covers a wide range to falsetto and back again; his songs exude emotion, honesty and wit.
Indiana is a warm, pleasant journey from a man realizing that, while he might not set the commercial musical world afire, he's still making a career out of his special, intimate music. Mead, like new label-mate Ron Sexsmith, seems to prefer the quiet revelations afforded with slower-paced softer pop.
With co-producer David Henry, Mead has kept things minimal and focused. Indiana has the intimacy you'd expect from a man reunited with friends and family (the CD booklet even features paintings by his wife, Natalie Cox Mead). All told, it's a special sort of gift, eleven gems of smooth voice and mature songcraft -- David Mead, welcome home.