By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
As rock-and-roll continues relinquishing its territories to the metal-punks in one camp and the hippie-folkies in the other, here's one more refugee who's come in from the pop battlefield. Chris Holmes, like fellow purists Stephin Merritt and Eric Matthews, is obsessed with the notion of "pop" music as form (a bright sound that suddenly turns dark, a whisper meant to convey a scream) and style (unapologetic love songs). His is a brand of pop that resounds with luxurious diapason, that spills over with strings and horns and lush, beautiful melodies that don't tug at your heart as much as they prick the skin like tiny hot needles.
It's lovely only from a distance, though, the songs filtered through a gauze that renders them a blurry shade of pretty. When the strings come up on the title song, when Holmes blends his soft voice and passive heartbreak lyrics ("I know we said goodbye/And I know you told me why"), he uses the form as Brian Wilson did, never breaking a smile or shedding a tear but always wearing the same melancholy frown. The instruments impart more information than the singer, and the notes expose the implicit, raw pain that informs the words.
Holmes keeps his asseverations simple enough to make their meanings clear but sparse enough to allow the listener to fill in the gaps. Holmes is the loser in love, pop's oldest character, and most of the time he's willing to take the blame for screwing things up ("No matter how I try to right these wrongs that I have done to you, I'll always fail," he sings in "Cross My Heart"). But he leaves enough space for culpability: His lovers leave him, cheat on him, laugh at him, leave him at the altar, tear his heart out, and he's always willing to come back for more. One minute he's insisting, "I'll wait for the rest of my life to see it through"; the next, he proclaims, "I won't lose my heart again"--all in the same song, titled "Words Will Fail."
It moves him
Here's the latest Willie "comeback"--his first album of originals in almost a decade, his self-produced debut on Island, and the sort of stripped-down folk-country affair he does best when he's not so fixated on commercial concerns. It's also a vaguely spiritual album--which, in Willie's case, means a few songs addressed to the Big Feller ("Too Sick to Pray," "I Thought About You, Lord") thrown in among other revelations and would-be standards that rescue his writing, singing, and guitar-playing in one brilliant moment.