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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1754

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Ken Yates: Twenty Three
by George Graham

(Mishara Music 0057 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/15/2014)

In music, as in other forms of art, one has the innovators, the iconoclasts who try to forge new directions, though not always successfully. There are also those who carry on traditions, perhaps by attempting to reproduce earlier styles, or by making work that is derivative. Innovation can be exciting, but there are reasons that some styles had persisted. For those who choose not to be the iconoclast, it's up to those artists to try to bring something new to the more familiar styles, or stand out in other ways, especially in a crowded field.

This week we have a very good new album that follows a heavily traveled artistic path and succeeds through sheer quality and taste. It's by singer-songwriter Ken Yates, a CD called Twenty Three.

Ken Yates was born and raised in London, Ontario, Canada and came to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music, honing his songwriting skills. He is a classic acoustic guitar-wielding folkie singing largely love songs, and thus is one in perhaps several thousand practitioners of the genre. But he is a reminder of why the seemingly simple style is so timeless and persistent -- he writes very good songs with attractive melodies, has a most appealing vocal style and his CD is particularly tasteful. And that in a nutshell is why this album deserves attention. It's very familiar musical territory, but it's done so well that folkie fans can't help but find the album charming.

One of Ken Yates' admitted influences is one of the more successful of the contemporary male singer-songwriters, John Mayer. Mayer one day came to speak at the songwriting class at Berklee that Yates was attending, and Yates got a chance to play one of his songs for Mayer, who had a good deal of praise for it and alerted his fans, which gave Yates' career a good boost. While at Berklee, Yates released an EP, but now he is out with his first full-length recording, Twenty Three named after one of its songs.

Interestingly, Yates went to the Netherlands to record his CD, and worked with producer Joren van der Voort with a mixture of American and Dutch musicians, though part of the CD was recorded in Massachusetts. Producer Van der Voort plays keyboards. Brian Dunne, who is a singer-songwriter in his own right, plays guitar on the CD, with a variety of other added musicians. But the instrumentation is generally understated and the focus tends toward a fairly intimate sound with Yates' pleasing airy tenor and his acoustic guitar.

The CD leads off with In the Middle of Heaven and Here with rather introspective lyrics. Atypical of the rest of the album is the presence of a steel guitar, which may give the mis-impression that this is a country album. It's also a bit over-produced compared to the rest of the record. <<>>

The song that caught the attention of John Mayer is the following piece, I Don't Want to Fall in Love. This lyrical sentiment about fearing getting into a relationship has been expressed by songwriters in the past, but Yates comes up with one of the best in the category. It's thoroughly well-written and the performance is very appealing. <<>>

The title piece 23 refers to an age. It's a kind of reflection on life up that point. Some of us who might be beyond that milestone may be amused by being philosophical at such an age, but Yates makes it believable. <<>>

Somewhat rockier in sound is a song called Curtain Call, with some of the more astute and perhaps cynical lyrics on the album -- a kind of lecture to someone who might be a bit too self-absorbed. <<>>

There are two geographical songs on the album placed consecutively, which reveals a little of Yates feelings on place. New York Rain is a nicely-honed composition seemingly about seeking the anonymity that the city brings. <<>>

The following song Get Me Out of Hollywood is about just what its title says -- a dislike of the Southern California atmosphere from the standpoint of a Canadian. <<>>

While the production of this album is generally more understated than many records in the genre, the song At First Light is stripped down to a solo performance. The intimate musical setting is a good fit for the contemplative lyrics, a consideration of the search for a love. <<>>

The CD ends with its longest and most elaborate song, Heart on a Wire, another very good piece of writing. <<>> Later, it features the album's only instrumental solos, which turns out to provide a nice climax for this generally laid-back album. <<>>

As I said at the beginning of this review, there are probably several thousand singer-songwriters on the scene. So it's not easy to stand out, especially by staying with the classic musical forms and singing mostly love songs. But Ken Yates new CD Twenty Three accomplishes that by doing everything right -- well-crafted songs, performed in a very personable way, with tasteful, generally understated production. It's one of those records one finds oneself going back to because it's so pleasing and free from gimmicks. Once in a while, the production gets a little heavier than I might have liked, with that steel guitar on the first track and sometimes too many backing vocals, but those are only my small quibbles on a very impressive essentially debut recording.

Another big plus is in the area of sound quality. I'll give it one of my increasingly rare grades "A." In an era of loudness wars on CDs with overcompression and ugly, in-your-face, overloaded sound, Twenty Three is a reminder that it is possible to make decent, clean, airy-sounding recordings that preserve some dynamic range.

Ken Yates is another reminder of why that simple form, the singer-songwriter genre, has persisted over the decades, and shows no signs of wearing thin, thanks to new blood like Yates.

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