The Beach is the third solo album from acclaimed St. John's, Newfoundland songwriter Chris Picco, an honest lyricist with considerable charm who also fronts Newfoundland's The Long Distance Runners. Having formed LDR, a red-blooded rock and roll outfit rallying around a passion for The Stones and The Kinks, between 2007's Ferris Wheel and now, Picco made a conscious decision to embrace barer arrangements for The Beach's sound in order to allow the substantial heart of the tunes to ring true. That's not to say ten songs of The Beach leave the ears wanting for anything; it's a finely crafted sound (credit Picco's close friend and co-producer/engineer Krisjan Leslie, who was also responsible for producing The Long Distance Runners' debut EP and LP) that deftly handles a versatile mix with grace and frequently reaches for greatness.
Picco is an adroit folk songwriter with a knack for personal lyrics that quickly endear themselves to the listener. The Beach never finds him pandering for attention, but he also isn't afraid of being taken as sentimental. He wears no pretense, but he also won't hesitate to engage satire and tear through a tongue-in-cheek narrative that finds him personifying a stock villain (the rollicking "Real Estate Man").
The Beach is a quietly engrossing collection of subtle beauties from a man newly embracing marriage and fatherhood while finding his own worthwhile acreage in a quickly spinning world. The most accurate portrait I can paint from weeks of enjoyment with The Beach is to say the songs gently soar with much of the melody, heart and genre shifts that might come from shuffling Wilco's finest deep album cuts from the pre-Summerteeth/post-A Ghost Is Born catalog. Although Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Summerteeth would be my #1 and #2 favorite Wilco albums when tortured to choose, this is intended to be anything but a knock on Picco. For a decade and a half, Wilco has been one of my favorite band (if not my absolute favorite), and nearly every album could be a contender for best-loved while fresh in my ears. The point is Picco's songs have an appeal that doesn't appear to fade with time, and they sit as comfortably with me as many songs from one of my all-time favorite bands do. It doesn't hurt that his vocal performance on the The Beach's exquisite string of ballads ("You're So Real," "The Beach," "Worth Believing," "The Good Within," "In Your Light") has an uncanny resemblance to the masculine frailty of Jeff Tweedy's weathered gems without feeling the least bit forced.
For my money, it's in the balladry that The Beach ascends from a likeable country-folk offering into an often sublime gem of a record. It's makes perfect sense; although all of Picco's tunes sport his genuine personality and concerns, these are the moments he taps into the thumping core of his soul with his vulnerabilities and unabashed hope. "You're So Real" and "Worth Believing" are touching love songs with his unique personal imprint from a newly married perspective. On the former, he knows it's not all roses and happily ever after ("A year has come and gone / and now you ask do I believe in God / I never open up / I just tell you to shut up / It's not because I'm mean / It's someone I don't wanna be"), but the optimism and relief in the chorus - masterfully concise and open-ended - is a thing of beauty: "You're so real, and you make me wanna feel." It's a rhyme that a second-grader could string together five minutes after hopping out of bed, but the weight behind the words and the refusal to give us anything other than simply "make me wanna feel" is deceptively poetic. "Worth Believing" is a lushly played beauty that could someday modestly sit in a canon alongside Neil Young's "Harvest Moon" and the Wilco-Feist duet "You and I" from Wilco (The Album).
Now appears to be as pertinent of a time as ever to address the derisive genre descriptor of "dad rock." Since the coin was termed - I'm guessing circa Wilco's Sky Blue Sky in 2007 (i.e. post-A Ghost Is Born, as previously mentioned) - "dad rock" has been carelessly (or carefully with intent to scorn) wielded in attempts to lessen the popular currency of bands with a willingness to slow tempos, embrace acoustic (or virtuosic electricity in the case of the great Nels Cline) arrangements, or go against the grain with earnest ballads in a suffocatingly cynical, 140-character world. "Dad rock" is meant to denigrate a band's output as solely targeting the Prius-driving, buttoned-down corporate type of fans - cool dads but unhip on the whole. It's stamped on such music to say this is custom-built for a demographic that is hopelessly out of touch with the cutting-edge acts and "Best New Music." Wilco have become the "dad rock" poster boys for more than half a decade - as have The National (another of my other favorite bands) - even though both bands are enjoying the greatest popularity of their careers (popularity that also equates to large fan bases in the under-30 demographic) and continued critical acclaim. I make mention of his here and now, because I have zero doubt that Chris Picco's The Beach would also be maligned as "dad rock" should the album ever make its way into the earbuds of an unnamed, almighty core of tastemaking sites. Although circumstances may never come to that, seek out Chris Picco's tunes before others manipulate the unchecked trend-setting powers to lazily malign The Beach with "dad rock."
Along with the knockout ballads of The Beach, Picco has made a charming core of country tunes that kick up plenty of down-home dirt. The arrangements (with lovely violin and mandolin in tow) flesh out Picco's storytelling so assuredly that you may have to pinch yourself to remember that these tunes hail from the great north rather than the sweltering heart of the Southwest. "Rodeo Girl" glides along swooning strings as Picco sings of a lover with a fondness for horses and sand beneath her feet, a woman who "sings country music at night / gospel music at dawn / but she's the happiest when the rodeo comes to town." "Spaghetti Ride" is a breathtaking minute-and-a-half Morricone homage that conjures tumbleweeds and saloon doors swinging to the rhythm - a solid coup for an album crafted during a Newfoundland autumn. That Old West instrumental gives way to the clever protest narrative "Johnny Came Home," delivered like Prine or Earle and produced like we're thrown into the center of a moonshine-drunk Southern hoedown.
The album's best songs are the magnificent, piano-driven closer, "In Your Light," and the title track, a sparsely divine ode to Picco's deceased mother. "Wait," Picco pleads on the latter, "don't leave so soon / don't want to lose you / stay within my reach / but everything must drift away / for it to come again / here upon the beach / we spin / around the sun / and like the stars / we burn bright / then we're gone." It's a vulnerable, mature prayer from a grown son not ready to be left alone, but it's also a penetrating mantra for anyone who knows what it means to have lost something meaningful. "In Your Light," finds Picco singing, "Life's a game / pick and choose / now that I've found you / I can't lose / I wanna thank you, darling / for seeing it through." This, too, is a devotional, but it's a worldly acknowledgment of thanks to the love of his life. Again, Picco's strength is in making personal sentiments flexible enough to register as whatever the listener needs them to be. It's a terribly subtle art, and Picco has nearly perfected it on The Beach's finest moments.
Picco's inspiration for The Beach was unmistakably personal, and the end result are songs of whimsical storytelling and intimate balladry. The truth is those of us who appreciate such music are sons, daughters, husbands, wives, sinners, saints, songwriters, song lovers, mothers and, yes, fathers. Some artists write compassionate songs about themes like love, loss and fatherhood with heartfelt lyrics and gorgeous melodies. Some of us fall in love with such songs, and become fans for the long haul. I'm well on my way to having such a relationship with the music of Chris Picco. The Beach is a deeply fulfilling collection of dusty country-folk and graceful love letters with revealing heart. Should the day come when songs like these get railroaded into the ridiculed classification of dad rock, I'm not ashamed to say that'll be a locomotive I'm willing to hop on until the end of the line.
*This review first appeared on Division St. Harmony on June 21, 2013.
Chris Picco - "In Your Light"
Chris Picco - "The Beach"
Justin is a featured contributor to No Depression, and he resides on the outskirts of Indianapolis in Noblesville, Indiana. He writes his own music blog Division St. Harmony (@DivisnStHarmony), and he has been a senior contributor to The Silver Tongue and Laundromatinee.
Justin has an affinity for writing and music that is both rich in head and heart. Feel free to follow him on Twitter at @clashrebel & @DivisnStHarmony and on Facebook.
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