Though most locals know him as the frontman for Better Than Ezra, Kevin Griffin has quietly carved out a career as a co-writer to the stars. To put it bluntly, he’s represented on a stack of albums I wouldn’t dream of owning—by Howie Day, James Blunt and the Barenaked Ladies—and one that I do own and like, the Struts’ Young & Dangerous. And did you know that he had a song on Beach Boy Mike Love’s Christmas album last year? Neither did I.
All of which explains why Griffin’s solo debut sounds like the work of a skilled craftsman stretching out. It’s not a Better Than Ezra album, though with a few tweaks it could have been: Griffin’s writing/singing style is recognizable by now, and the Ezras are capable of arranging anything he comes up with. But the band still prefers an uncluttered guitar-band sound, and this album is all about multi-layered arrangements, with exotic keyboards and walls of backing vocals. The best moments come when the arrangements enhance the lyrics, and when Griffin’s natural cleverness admits a bit of personal detail. That happens on “Got Off Easy” whose opening line pulls a bit of nostalgia: “I still remember you there, wearing your Modern Lovers T-shirt, choking on a clove cigarette.” But the song ultimately celebrates the couple’s getting away with whatever impulsive things they did as kids. What really makes it work is a marimba playing the riff from the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way”—which of course is exactly what the couple in the song would have been listening to.
Griffin’s craftsman instincts are the album’s strength as well as its occasional drawback: Every song heads straight for the chorus hook, even if it’s about the cycle of city violence (“Bleed For It”) or the passing of time (“Bad Old Days”). Label promo is dropping Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Neil Young’s Harvest as touchstones, but it doesn’t feel like that kind of intense catharsis. It does feel like commercial pop with smarts.