Lets face it – it’s no longer enough to be a man with a red guitar, three chords, and the truth. These days, if you’re going to be a white male with a few good choruses, you’d better have your gimmick ready. David Gray was boring as sin until he tripped over a laptop and began mainlining ProTools. Shame he went cold turkey soon afterwards…
So into this uncertain world steps Tom McRae. McRae, Mercury Music Prize nominated for his first album, has been quietly releasing solid if unremarkable albums since 2001. A literate soul with a expressive voice, he’s at his best when he possesses the confidence to present his songs as bereft of artifice as possible. 2nd law, from his first self-titled LP, managed to sound spectrally timeless with just McRae, a piano and some subtle background shading. Working in references to the 2nd law of thermodynamics kept the inner geek in me happy, too.
And so to King of Cards, McRae’s fourth album, in which we find him embracing his inner stadium rocker. Not good. Bombastic production works best propping up unsteady songs, and McRae’s compositions need no such scaffolding. Opener Set The Story Straight starts wonderfully, a fragile, yearning tune, until half-way through the producer starts channeling his inner Daniel Lanois. Crystal perfection becomes dirty sludge – a real waste. Similarly, Bright Lights sounds polished beyond hope. James spring to mind; not in a good way, either. Possible future single Sound Of The City similarly disappoints with its pubrock blandness.
But you can’t keep a good man down, and the album is redeemed by its quieter moments. Got A Suitcase, Got Regrets slips by, a stately song of moving on and trying not to regret it. Keep Your Picture Clear similarly impresses, and is easily the most unusual song of the album, possessing an initial implied aggression that finds expression halfway through via distorted guitar and harmonica like The The , circa Dogs Of Lust.
Of course, for all the calm, meditative moments there’s always a Jim Kerr-ism lurking just around the corner. There’s something not right about listening to songs that take their subject matter from the West’s recent extra-curricular activities, and seeing in your mind’s eye people standing in stadiums holding lighters aloft. Back to basics next time please, Tom.