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(Sarathan Records 025 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/28/2009)
One of the most common questions to a songwriter is, what do you come up with first, music or lyrics. In the singer-songwriter genre that arose from the folk music scene, the answer was usually lyrics. Most of the artists of the era approached their music as a means to say something. But there are some who seem to start with the music. This week, we have a good example. It's Peter Bradley Adams, whose new third full CD is called Traces.
Peter Bradley Adams grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and started taking classical piano lessons at age six. He called his grandfather, who had been a professional clarinet player in the big bands, one of his principal influences. Adams said that as a child, he would sit under the piano whenever his grandfather came to visit and played. He said he dabble with songwriting at a young age, but pursued the classical direction, and studied composition formally, with a bachelor's degree from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and a master's at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. He also went to Germany to study with composer Michael Kapsner.
Composition for film drew his interest and Adams moved to Los Angeles in the mid 1990s, studying film scoring at the University of Southern California's Thorton School of music. He began picking up jobs in the field, but also his continuing interest in songwriting led him to form the band eastmountainsouth in 2001 after he met Kat Maslich Bode. The group found themselves signed by Robbie Robertson of The Band to the then-emerging Dreamworks label.
In 2005 Adams put out a self-released EP, which attracted some attention, and since then has released Gather Up in 2006, and Leavetaking last year. Now living in Brooklyn, Adams has been recording in Nashville, which is where the new CD was also made.
While Peter Bradley Adams touches on timeless themes in his lyrics, his film-composing background is apparent in the sonorities of his music on the new CD. The instrumentation and arrangement can sometimes be spare, but his music conveys a kind of mood is almost always attractive in its sound. The musical emphasis is also conveyed through the mix and presentation of his vocals. While he is a worthy and pleasing vocalist, his vocals seem to be in the service of the overall sound, rather than completely being the focus. In fact, sometimes his lyrics can be a little hard to make out.
Joining him on the CD is a variable group of Nashville players -- the arrangements differ among the tracks. Guitarist and bassist Lex Price is the most frequently featured guest.
Opening the CD is a song fairly typical of Peter Bradley Adams' attractive and somewhat atmospheric blend. Family Name features one of the larger groups of backing musicians on the CD. <<>>
For You is another pleasing piece that seems to be somewhere between a love song and a lullaby. <<>>
A track called I Won't seems to be about a breakup, but it is still given a kind of ethereal sound. <<>>
One of the more intriguing songs is Darkening Sky which is served up with a kind of spacey folk backing, and seems to be about a significant other who is near death. <<>>
Adams includes one non-original song. I Cannot Settle Down, was written by one Dan Janisch, and is very much compatible with the rest of the CD. It's a pretty, folk-influenced piece that in a way reflects Adams' own peripatetic life. <<>>
Another facet of Adams comes out on I Tell Myself which has the sound of an old rock and roll ballad. It's another rather classic breakup song. <<>>
About the only hint that the CD was made in Nashville comes on the song Walk Away, which features bluegrass fiddler Luke Bulla. It's another song about love that's come apart. <<>>
The CD ends with perhaps its most ambient-sounding track, Awaken features a kind of trance-like sound. <<>> And includes a sequence of Middle Eastern vocals to add to the atmosphere. <<>>
Peter Bradley Adams' new CD Traces is a nicely-done recording of pleasing music by a singer-songwriter who skillfully creates musical and sonic atmospheres in his songs. His background as a film composer is sometimes evident -- in fact some of his previous songs on his solo albums have already been used in television productions and films such as "Elizabethtown." While Adams' emphasis seems to be more on the music than the words, his sometimes wistful, sometimes sad lyrics, visit familiar topics in a literate way.
Our grade for sound quality is about a B plus. The mix is well handled and the music's atmospheric quality in conveyed in the recording. But it is undermined by the usual sonic bugaboo, heavy-handed volume compression, apparently to play in the CD "loudness wars" game, which is exactly counter to the mood of the music.
I suppose that if one were looking for a glib phrase to describe Peter Bradley Adams' music on his new CD, it would be "ambient folk." It's a nice blend and makes for CD that will likely have staying power.
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