Writing a whole album for single instrument and voice is a deceptively difficult task. No orchestration, no ornamentation, nothing but the melody, the rhythm, and whatever counterpoint you can get your fingers (or your looper) to do; what could go wrong?
Well, lots. I’ve heard a bunch of albums that consist of the same three songs over and over. I’ve discovered how important a backing band is to some musicians. I’ve heard a lot of grating flaws that were charming in a previous context. All this makes me appreciate even half-decent attempts at true solo records that much more. Cameron Blake‘s Alone on the World Stage is that rare album which showcases diverse songwriting skills and loads of memorable melodies within a very constricted medium. Alone impressively makes guitar and voice seem like an endless, expansive orchard with good songs ripe for the picking.
It’s not just that the songs are all there; they all sound so easy. The rolling fingerpicking of lead single “North Dakota Oil” seems to effortlessly buoy Blake’s baritone musings about the latest American oil rush. The insistent strumming that supports tales of hard-luck life in “Detroit” sounds no less assured. The pensive sway of “The Fisherman,” the bouncy “Piccadilly Circus,” and the precise-yet-gentle arpeggios of “Ultrasound” all show other facets of the diamond. “Fragile Glory” closes the record not by rehashing the sonic content, but by summing it up beautifully in a tender, expressive performance. Blake didn’t phone in a single song here: deft, purposeful work went into each of these twelve tracks. The result is an album that showcases his vast instrumental songwriting abilities without getting repetitive.
His lyrical songwriting is as adroit as the guitar work. Despite the implied political ends of the title, the album covers a wide range of topics. “Welfare Street” follows up on the promise of some politics, but primarily by focusing on the plight of the people involved in the situation–“Detroit” can be read in the same way. “Fragile Glory” expands the widescreen lens even more, taking a look at the whole human condition (“Hallelujah! We are human.”). On the other end of the spectrum, “Ultrasound” is a very personal song about becoming a father. But even if the scope is turned outward or inward, these are songs that are generous, even affectionate, toward their subjects. Instead of taking a calculated, sneering, ironic stance that can come out in pictures of people in culture, there’s a kind undercurrent to the lyrics that courses through the tunes almost as persistently as the bass note rhythms.
It’s peculiar that the most moving song on the album is one of two written for piano and voice: “Home Movie” is a soaring, passionate treatment of what the liner notes call “old silent film music” with new vocals and lyrics. Blake’s consistently evocative vocals are especially well done here, as his baritone lends the song a dynamism that fits with the deeply affecting lyrics. It’s the sort of song that doesn’t appear that often; everything comes together in that one performance to show the heart of the song and the songwriter. It’s the best of what an instrument and a voice can do; it’s the track that allures and calls so many people to try this sort of thing.
Cameron Blake’s Alone on the World Stage sees him standing out from the pack of singer/songwriters with powerful songwriting, passionate lyrics, and intimate performances. Blake sets the bar high for this year of albums.