2 out of 5
Produced by: Greg Norman (recorded by)
Singer-songwriters have, maybe, the ultimate challenge when it comes to standing out in the long term in music: it’s kind of like the short story in comics or writing, boiling the mode of delivery down to its barest essentials. For writing, that’s to accommodate packing the full scope of something into limited pages; for singer-songwriters, the length of the song might not be abbreviated – and may, indeed, go on for longer than a “typical” single – but it’s the directness of the formula, often that first step for fledgling wannabe-in-a-bands: just your voice and a guitar; just your voice and a keyboard. There are things that can be done to the differentiate yourself from many of your fellow just-a-voice-and… compatriots, whether it’s being especially lyrically clever, or adding some virtuoso musical elements, or having an especially distinct voice. And sometimes, as it is with perhaps any given singer-songwriter (or band), connecting with an audience – or with a single person – is just right place / right time.
And maybe if I had heard Quieting Syrup’s Songs About A Sick Boy when I was deluged with radio pop and punk, a teen listening to CDs in my room, it might’ve been that right place and time. But even given that, I think that may’ve required more isolation from music than I’d had even in those early days – I’d certainly heard enough to draw a picture of what commercialized, audience-pleasing stuff sounded like, and while that surely has its place across various genre, it’s generally not something I need to own, or listen to beyond some singles.
Songs About a Sick Boy was written over the course of years, from a time spanning teenhood to young adulthood by Stephen Howard – a player in bands such as Pinebender, Denali, and more. Set on his solo course (though the guitar focus is accompanied by bass, drums, keys), Howard’s tonal preference seems to fall somewhere between the delicate pop of an Elliott Smith, or the slow and steady drawl of a Damien Jurado; there’s an overall emo sensibility – songs about sickness, about wellbeing – and occasionally we get some punched up sections with distortion. But the album is lacking that something that makes an Elliott Smith or Damien Jurado – while well composed and produced, this is a starting point; a true side project. It’s not that it’s demos, it just sounds like bits and pieces of many other things you’ve heard before, and then indulged on occasion to 6+ minute tracks that hit a memorable chorus, but then repeat, again and again. Even at shorter track lengths, this sensation of repetition is present, with Howard hitting a very similar cadence and vocal range throughout.
By mentioning “commercialized” work above, I don’t mean to suggest that Songs About a Sick Boy is aimed for radio play, rather that it’s informed by the most immediate influences – it is more of a personal project than anything, and I’m sure it was rightly timed and placed for others needing some sad but hopeful songs with a very familiar lilt. I rather found myself losing patience with it, even when left in the background, feeling like I’d heard a particular chorus or melody already several times through after only a few tracks.