This next album is the third out of the last eight that after reviewing I am letting go. I need to be more picky at the record store.
Disc 1030 is…Modern Pressure
Artist: Daniel Romano
Year of Release: 2017
What’s up with the Cover? The washed out Giant Head of Daniel Romano stars blankly into the distance as it overshadows a full-bodied Daniel Romano climbing an old stairwell. Much like the album itself, there’s too much going on for this picture to work.
How I Came To Know It: I had some good luck on Daniel Romano albums lately so when he released a new one earlier this year I took a chance on it.
How It Stacks Up: I have five Daniel Romano albums, and must reluctantly put “Modern Pressure” in last place – or fifth, if you’re big on participation ribbons. I’m not.
Ratings: 2 stars
Daniel Romano is a gifted songwriter with a penchant for taking risks, and these qualities can make for some pretty cool music. Yet even the most creative artists can drown themselves in their own self-absorption. This is what happens on “Modern Pressure.”
Romano was already walking on the edge of danger coming into this record. His voice and delivery are heavily reminiscent of Bob Dylan, but while Romano flirts heavily with Dylan’s sixties sound, he usually puts together songs with his own creative twist, simultaneously playing the role of throwback and innovator. It can work, but it’s a dangerous game.
On “Modern Pressure” all the right elements are present, including Romano’s innate talent to write a catchy folk song with a Byrd-like rock twist, but he makes a host of poor decisions from there. It is the musical equivalent of taking the wrong exit off the highway and then trying to compensate by going down a dozen switch-back country roads, all the while refusing to admit you’re not even in the right town.
The title track is a good example. It is pretty enough but it felt like I was listening to someone imagining what “Dylan: the Basement Tapes II – The Undiscovered Basement Tapes” would sound like. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t anything special.
For all that, Romano is worse when he tries to make it interesting. I should have been nervous when on the opening track “Ugly Human Heart Pt. 1” (yes, there are two parts) Romano throws a discordant drum beat over top of what is otherwise a passable song. I’m not sure why he does it. Because the drum beat is like an ugly human heart? Get it? Get it? If that’s all it is, then yes I get it, but it doesn’t make it good.
When I reviewed his previous album “Mosey” back at Disc 953 I noted that while there is a lot of self-indulgence, there are enough high points to counter the missteps. On “Modern Pressure” the reverse is true. The dividing line is Romano’s insistence to take the best songs on the record and then wreck them for the sake of showing you that he can.
“The Pride of Queens” is a beautiful track. Half folk song and half alt-rock guitar anthem, this song has a beautiful build from sixties Dylan sound to a crunchy guitar that defies you to not play air guitar on the bus (sorry, fellow bus passengers). Then Romano inexplicably tags on a coda of thirty seconds of what-the hell at the end. This includes some weird thumping bass-line that sounds like it was produced on a lap-top Casio. It is not even the same song, appears for no apparent reason, and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of what up to that point I had thoroughly enjoyed.
“Jennifer Castle,” is a rolling romance with some inspiring guitar picking. Even Romano’s vocals, which were never his strong suit, are clear and heartfelt. I don’t even mind the fade out…but then it fades back in, again to a different song. During this second movement, Romano delivers a minute of what I think is a critique of artificiality in love songs. Some choice lines from this “hidden” track that he’s tacked on:
“…Yes, and you’re all pushing the same trash
And I just don’t believe it
‘Cause there’s a lack of sincerity
In the words you’re trying to write
Fake love songs”
“Yes, you’re cheapening the sentiment
That you’re trying to make to them
Just another fake love song.
Romano sabotages his own song for the sake of what? To prove that there is artificiality in love songs? Because to me, what he does here is a prime example. Or is that the point, some kind of endless art-comments-on-itself feedback loop? Again I get it, but it doesn’t make it good.
Of the album’s three best songs, only “When I Learned Your Name” is left unblemished by some kind of self-conscious meta-commentary. Unfortunately, at only 2:23 in length, that just wasn’t enough here to make up the difference.
To be fair, this album is better than you’d think based on this review. There is a lot of genuinely pretty music here, with some thoughtful writing from Romano, and some top-notch guitar playing. However in the constant attempt to rebel against himself, Romano ends up on a narrow ledge where there’s only room for him, and not his audience. Not surprisingly, there is no room for this CD on my CD shelf as a result.
Best tracks: 90% of the Pride of Queens, When I Learned Your Name, 80% of Jennifer Castle