Fingerpicker Mark Morriss has made a name for himself with the now defunct The Bluetones and solo, so one would expect that a slight change in style might be a welcome addition to Morriss’ catalogue and an opportunity for him to showcase his versatility. But with A Flash Of Darkness, Morriss’ second overall solo record and first solo record since The Bluetones split up (and first solo record in six years), he does not provide fans of either act anything remotely inspiring.
Morriss’ decreasing emphasis on guitars and increasing emphasis on songwriting ultimately reveals his weaknesses as a songwriter, or at least his current lack of inspiration. A Flash Of Darkness never sees Morriss pushing himself, resulting in a structurally fine but unremarkable and unmemorable collection of songs.
Take Consuela, an upbeat pop track about breaking up. The track sports acoustic guitar, a synthesizer-laden chorus and clean horn arrangements, but never leaves its comfort zone, not lyrically (leaving a loved one even though it breaks your heart is certainly tired territory after 60-odd years of pop music) nor musically (driving beats and repetitive melodies sans improvisation or change along the way never results in good songs). Meanwhile, the Southern United States rock of Low Company doesn’t venture beyond a faux Neil Young riff and workmanlike drumming, rendering it one of the laziest tracks on the album.
Even when the songs on A Flash Of Darkness deliver musical surprises, such as Guilty Again and its initial 8-bit melody, they take miniscule moments of musical inspiration and blow them out of proportion to the point where they tire the listener by the end of the track; it’s akin to a DJ finding a great beat but repeating it for five minutes without the slightest build. For example, On It’s Hard To Be Good All The Time, which registers as Morriss’ best Elliott Smith impersonation to date (until its more CSNY-heavy chorus surfaces), Morriss takes a quiet, introverted melody and adds layered vocal tracks and piano stabs, neither of which count as enough of musical variation to hold someone’s interest throughout its four-minute running time.
Surprisingly, Morriss’ greatest success here is the one that had the most potential for failure: his cover of The Shins’ previously-untouchable Chutes Too Narrow gem Pink Bullets. Without the context of The Shins, Pink Bullets is simply a great song, no thanks to Morriss. But for Shins fans, Morriss’ more upbeat, keyboard-laden cover provides the perfect balance between ingenuity and faith to the original. While The Shins’ beautiful guitar licks, yearning vocals from James Mercer and solemn harmonica can never be topped, Morriss is able to recreate the song’s general melancholy mood with layered vocals, drums, and driving acoustic guitars. When he sings “The years have seemed short but the days go slowly by,” it’s easy to garner sympathy for him.
Listening to A Flash Of Darkness, it’s hard not to think that if Morriss’ attitude towards Pink Bullets had transpired to the rest of the record, it could have been a standout on Morriss’ resume. His cover of Pink Bullets shows his curatorial talents and his ability to observe his musical surroundings and synthesize original material with personal style to create something new. But with the rest of the album, Morriss cannot tackle neither cliché nor worn territory. His embrace of tired songwriting tropes combined with his by-the-books composition has resulted in something of a disappointment.