“That’s the way it is with good ones,” aging country star Bad Blake, played by Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart
, once explained. “You’re sure you’ve heard them before.” The opening to “Traveling Shoes”, the first track on Lawrence Arabia’
s third record, The Sparrow
, sounds like it’s been part of the shared language of pop for decades. The swelling strings, the “Stand by Me” reference, and the descending bass line that weaves around a gorgeous, swaying melody all come together for a shining moment that sounds as if it influenced the many decades of music that, in reality, inspired it. Somehow, it’s a new song.
“Traveling Shoes” is quite a way to start The Sparrow, and the rest of the album has varying success, with Lawrence Arabia’s James Milne trying to wear both the masks of infectious pop arranger and gloomy singer-songwriter. Aspiring to the orchestral pop of Elliott Smith, Milne also takes a cue from the sharp wit of Ray Davies’ “Sunny Afternoon” on “Bicycle Riding”, where the singer’s own life of luxury has left him stifled, having “seen it all before.” The sad whine set to a somber piano arrangement ends up sounding like an outtake from Nilsson Sings Newman. Both Harry and Randy, orchestral pop humorists like Milne, leave a strong mark on the sometimes self-effacing, willfully imperfect, first person narrators that take center stage throughout the record.
Moments of comic levity and backhanded humor–the openly distrustful singer on “The Bisexual” who ends up learning a thing or two, the bragging narrator on “Kneecapping” who wants to recount his delinquencies–beg for more of the same on The Sparrow, which has a hard time deciding if it wants to be a pop record or just a way to tell some stories about dreary afternoons.
The chamber-pop instrumental on The Sparrow seems not lazy or out of place, but fitting, almost necessary. “Dessau Rag” shows off Lawrence Arabia’s ambitions and priorities as arranger, producer, and composer. Indeed, mood and style sometimes take precedent over lyric and story on The Sparrow. Lawrence Arabia would likely reject the “singer-songwriter” label; he’s far too concerned with arranging and presenting his stories of sardonic, white-collar despair to merely play the role of storyteller.
Essential Tracks: “Traveling Shoes”