Why we listen

Music critics are a generally loathsome bunch. We slag the music everybody likes, and then we try to convince the masses that they really should be listening to something that is actually unlistenable. Trout Mask Replica has been around for more than 40 years, and it still gets mentioned whenever I hear or read someone go on an anti-critic rant.

Elijah Ocean
Bring It All In
(New Wheel)

It is true that most music critics aren't big fans of really popular music. I'm not. I've heard tens of thousands of albums in my time, and I've reviewed more than 8,000 of them. Unlike Wilt Chamberlain, I've got the documentation to prove such an assertion. I don't have patience for things I've heard before--unless they're done really well. And then I tend to fall in love. The folks who manage to make accessible music sound effortless and utterly approachable are the real geniuses. There just aren't many of them around.

Elijah Ocean is a prototypical americana singer-songwriter. There's not one thing here that hasn't been done before. He's got the laconic delivery of Gram Parsons, the sweet fiddle of Whiskeytown (without Caitlin Cary's vocals, alas), and just enough pedal steel and piano to make these songs sound almost symphonic. In other words, he's just like a thousand other folks.

Except that his songs work.

I firmly believe that almost anyone can pick out good music with ease. And any idiot can write an invective-laden slag. Destroying someone else's art just for fun isn't criticism. It's just mean. It's the "why" that makes a critic. At least, that's what I think.

And Ocean's songs are great because of their arrangements. He never hurries, but he never tarries, either. He seems to have an ear for the interior groove of a song, and he makes sure that each song serves that kernel of musical truth.

In the final analysis, Ocean sounds like Ryan Adams when Adams hasn't succumbed to a fatal case of the mopes. Ocean has a few touches of his own (his voice isn't nearly as clear, which lends plenty of endearment), and he really sets himself apart with a solid grasp on the final presentation of his songs.

Any critic will tell you that most great music sounds effortless. Or, as my wife put it the other day, "I could make this. Easy." She knows, better than most, that it in incredibly difficult to make music that sounds easy. Ocean sounds like he's singing on his back porch with a few friends. That's not the case, of course, but the illusion helps make this album great.

Jon Worley

return to A&A home page