Bill Ricchini's new album evokes Brian Wilson, Elliott Smith, and Belle and Sebastian -- just the way he likes it.
Bill Ricchini acknowledged the similarities between his music and Elliott Smith's in a mock review of his first record, Ordinary Time, for Philadelphia's City Paper in 2002. The singer described the CD as "a quietly beautiful set of hushed folk pop" reminiscent of "Elliott Smith, The Smiths, and Simon and Garfunkel". So, no matter what a lowly music reviewer likes me might think of his chosen style, Ricchini's got it all summed up.
He's not too far off, either. Though it's perplexing as to exactly why Ricchini so openly reveals his influences in this way. Not that artists don't do it all the time, it's just that Ricchini's name is almost never mentioned without Smith's somewhere alongside it. Or Belle and Sebastian's, or Brian Wilson's. Ricchini needn't draw the comparisons when everyone else (including myself) is so willing to do it for him. For whatever reason, though, the guy wants you to know where he comes from, and it might all come off as a little needy were he not so clearly motivated by his own talent rather than his ability to emulate others. It's time, though, he let the music speak for itself. Then again, when his new "Angela" and Smith's "Angeles", from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, are as alike as they are, perhaps the comparisons are part of Ricchini's drive?
Whatever the case, Tonight I Burn Brightly is a fine record. It follows Ordinary Time, famously recorded in his basement studio in 2001 and released to general acclaim in 2002. Ordinary Time was a critical hit because it captured rare and raw heartbreak and confusion so simply with instrumental eccentricities, including xylophone and trumpet, beneath Ricchini's one-note, centered vocal. The fact that it was recorded in a lonely man's living environment only added to its melancholy.
But, as Smith fans know, melancholy alone isn't enough to make a sad record enjoyable. Ricchini's work is decidedly lazy, not in terms of artistry, but just how relaxed the singer appears throughout it. His resistance of vocal theatrics, or any real tempo shifts with the progression of songs, creates a prearranged feeling, that Tonight I Burn Brightly is almost musical literature with no particular song trying to stand out from the rest, but all desiring to evenly sink in as the project builds cohesion.
Each song is like a new chapter, defining and redefining characters from each previous track. "A Cold Wind Will Blow Through Your Door", a note delivered to a friend, girlfriend, or other ally, as he or she heads out into the chilly night is followed up with "Angela", about a dissolving couple. The song's line, "You're waiting at the station, / You're getting on the tube, / Without a destination, / A ghost is in the room," calls to mind the previous song's "Remember to keep warm, Take shelter from the storm, / The night will not last for much more." Is Angela the ally Ricchini's narrator sent out through that chilly doorway? Perhaps. And if not, she might be the girl with the lingering scent in "She Don't Come Around Here Anymore".
As the narrative builds, it becomes clear, at least in this reviewer's fantasy, that Angela is indeed this girl -- she's every girl. She's the mistake in "I Just Can't Fall in Love", she's the addiction in "Dark Little Sea", and she's even Debbie, the yearned-for mascara girl in "It's a Story, It's a Fable". Ricchini's every-girl is the star of "Tonight I Burn Brightly", from the CDs exquisite cover art to the pain she causes throughout and the joy she brings at the end (well, pseudo-joy, as all potential love is).
The album attaches itself to its influences as much as it pulls away. The Pet Sounds vibe is nowhere near as clear on this one as Ordinary Time, but Ricchini's desire to recreate the Wall of Sound beneath his sad songs remains. Though many of the songs are simple to the point of predictable (the lyric, "someday we'll walk into the ocean," for instance, can only be followed with "someday we'll fall into the sea"), they manage to captivate for the same reasons they did on Ordinary Time. Ricchini's got honest heartbreak down. Upscale production hasn't hindered his work, either -- out of the basement is a good thing for Ricchini. This one sounds like a good album should; crystal, radiant, sublime.