This remarkably self-assured debut album showcases Hart’s mature songwriting and well-crafted arrangements.
Surprisingly enough, 26-year-old Glaswegian singer-songwriter Roddy Hart didn’t start out as a musician. Instead, he spent five years working on a first class honors degree in law. Only after deciding not to practice law did he turn his attention to music. According to his bio, the first thing he did after graduation "was record eight songs on an old four-track machine, put together some homemade covers, and [send] them off to anyone who would listen." Though Hart picked up management and some record company interest right away, he opted to hone his stagecraft first. Thus, he embarked on a series of tours, opening for John Prine, Ray Lamontagne, Kris Kristofferson, and the Trashcan Sinatras.
I first heard Hart a couple of years ago, opening for the criminally underrated Trashcan Sinatras at the Paradise Rock Club on Comm. Ave., just up the road from Boston University. For me, like many of those in attendance, the opening act was an afterthought -- I was mostly just astonished that the Trashcans had managed to regroup after nearly eight years, and to release such a wonderful new record. Even so, Roddy managed to win over the crowd with an assortment of understated acoustic tracks, performed with energy and enthusiasm, all featuring his reedy, expressive tenor. Still, that short set barely hinted at Hart’s songwriting prowess.
Now, two years later, Nashville-based Compass Records has released Bookmarks, Hart’s remarkable debut album, featuring contributions from a well-known roster of guests, including Kristofferson, Paul Livingston, Frank Reader and Stephen Douglas of the Trashcan Sinatras, and Eddi Reader (former Fairground Attraction vocalist, and sister of Trashcans vocalist Frank). Not only did the multi-talented Hart write every song on the album, he also co-produced the disc (with Paul McGeechan) and played a host of instruments throughout, including guitar, banjo, piano, Hammond organ, mandolin, harmonica, and glockenspiel. Sounding like nothing so much as a young Willie Nelson, Hart displays a world-weariness beyond his years, and a deft lyrical touch.
Hart’s well-crafted and consistent debut deals with common themes of love and loss, and, though many tracks are suffused with a low-key melancholy, this is not a depressing album. On the thoughtful opening song "The Life and Times of Joseph Rowe", Hart paints a vivid portrait of an old man wistfully reflecting on opportunities lost ("As the years went rushing past / I let some things slip from my grasp / Too proud to let the moments last / Or just too scared"), but ultimately recognizing there’s nothing to do but move on ("But everyone must make amends with what is lost / I’m ready now to face the dawn"). Next up, on the rollicking, harmonica-driven "She Is All I Need", Hart’s yearning is almost palpable ("For every bright morning I’d just bow my head / And beautiful night time should watch where it treads / As for the stars, I’d pay them no heed / She is all I need"). Other highlights include the lovely ballad "My Greatest Success", featuring Kris Kristofferson and Eddi Reader on backing vocals, and the lively "Flames", which paints a vivid portrait of two furtive lovers ("They stumble in and out the park and try to find a cheap hotel / But badly blinded by the dark find sleep inside some kind of well / He says "These moments I would buy", she says "What makes you think I’d sell"?).