Jason Dove: Illegal Activities
Indie songwriters need to tread lightly when turning to piano-driven melodies. Even the mighty Ted Leo, whose politically aware punk/pop songwriting muse has always felt to be Billy Bragg-indebted, got a little bit too Billy Joel-y on Living With the Living. Worse, in this mercantile day and age of independent coffee shops, bookstores, cafes, DIY craft-designer boutiques, etc. flooding their airspace with plangent, hummable, mid-tempo alterna-pop, everything starts to bleed together--and as soon as a self-aware white dude opens his mouth to sing over a piano, the mind is haunted by shuddering nightmares of Ben Folds.
So thank Jason Dove for peppering his new Illegal Activities with more than a few piano-driven ditties that don't immediately make you pray for sudden deafness. Perhaps what keeps Illegal from becoming precious with the ebony and ironies is that a handful of the album's 10 tracks feel a little bit country--not outright honky-tonk, mind you, but dusted with a pastoral patina. A front-porch guitar strum feathers "The Whisper" into life. Angelic harmonizing and a laconic electric guitar line shadows "Blue Cordoba" with a folksy charm, and "Hallelujah" feels like an outright old church song turned worldly pop. This vibe is best pitched in "Your New Tomorrow," where a gently shuffling piano and a waltzing bass back Dove's twang-less vocal, making the song feel like a city boy wandered into a backwoods bar after-hours and traded shots with the house band.
Dove can still deliver his more conventional pop-rock. "Big Red Truck" bops along a Fang-like groove, and "If You Think We Don't Care" marries shimmering lyrics to instantly memorable unassuming pop, while the forlorn "Pirates" skirts dangerously close to Folds-ian pap. But there are enough musical curveballs and unsatisfied lyrics here to prevent Illegal from becoming mere wallpaper.