When John Paul comes to Slainte in a couple weeks, he'll be returning to the Portland scene where he got his start in the biz, now just part of a tour that will swing him around the East Coast before he finds his way back to his new home in LA. Along the way he's moved from drummer (Stillview) to frontman (Black Tie Affair) and now to solo artist, and changed his sound quite a bit, too. Where once he was firmly ensconced in the pop-punk/alt-rock club scene, his new Belmont Boulevard was recorded in Nashville and drips with steel guitar and country piano.
It's a stark contrast for those who know his previous work, as he joins the ranks of locals like Roy Davis and Travis Kline who've embraced Ryan Adams-esque country rock. In fact, just as Kline tapped pedal steel-player Jon Graboff, one of Ryan's Cardinals, for his recent EP, Paul has here picked up the Cardinal rhythm section of Brad Pemberton on drums and Billy Mercer on bass, along with other Nashville session types like guitarist Dan Dugmore (Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor). Producer Tom Acousti arranged the whole thing, and the whole package succeeds in being a songwriter-driven country rock album with a warm and familiar sound.
Vocally, however, John Paul doesn't seem to have settled into his new countrified role. He opens the album with "21," sounding fey and unsure to match the song's retreating sentiment: "I wish I was still young/Not 21." He reaches here for the first of a number falsetto bits on the album, without ever really nailing one. It's like he felt a falsetto should be there, and it probably should, but he's just not the guy to sing it. He moves through the album, which is paced excellently as it alternates between hard-charging rock and slower ballads, like he's trying on personas. Variety can be great on an album, but here it feels tentative and exploratory, whether it's the Billy Idol grunts on "Chameleon," the forced vocal twang of "Our Time," or the squeaky tenor of "Card."
But while he was in Nashville, he should have been hitting the publishing houses, because he can definitely write. I love how he delays the punch line of "Set Me Up," saving the "just to knock me down" for the finish. The guy-gal back-and-forth of "Drink and Drive," like George Jones and Tammy Wynette, is terrific, letting you know that the girl doesn't care to continue the relationship either (and Emily Fox belts out her verse). And as the album plays out, he shows he can do pop, with the fun singalong "Sinking in," where "she haunts my brain/I need a spotless mind," and psychedelic, too, with "Way Too Soon": "Oh, orange peel sun, rising above/She can't feel full when she's only a quarter moon."
John Paul's got the sound, the packaging, and the drive to find plenty of fans. Those who find some of his vocal meanderings quaint and endearing will love him to death. But for fans of the genre who got hooked by Jayhawks harmonies or Steve Earle bravado, he might be just another songwriter with a pedal steel in the background.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BELMONT BOULEVARD | Released by John Paul | at Slainte, in Portland | April 19 | www.johnpaulsmusic.com