An unsurprising mastery
by Hilary Scott
COLUMBIA, Mo 2/24/14 (Review) -- John Galbraith of The Goldbugs, John Galbraith and His Grievances, and several other notable Columbia acts, intertwines folk, blues, bluegrass, and alternative into a cohesive whole on Souvenir. His mastery of such variety is not surprising, since the bands Galbraith has called his own have run the gamut from power pop and country to garage rock.
Souvenir has something of Elliott Smith in Galbraith's treatment of the vocals, the emotional straightforwardness and sincerity of Johnny Cash, and a unifying Americana sound. Melodically and structurally, the album is much as the title implies: something familiar and reminiscent, yet personal to the individual who has chosen it. Each song could be a "souvenir," of a style and theme fondly remembered.
Galbraith, however, throws in an unexpected twist now and again, keeping the comfortable and familiar surprisingly fresh and interesting.
With the opening track, "Oh Rosa Lee", we get a pure dose of the drug John delivers throughout the album: unfettered emotion, and some tongue-in-cheek self-deprecating humor that is consistently endearing and empathetic. "I've lost my way everywhere I've been, but I always find my way back to you," he explains.
In the catchy second song, "Certainly Uncertain" Galbraith and Nic Gorham "fake a bluegrass band," Galbraith says. It's a sound that invites the listener to hear what John has to say.
In "Don't Take Me the Wrong Way," Galbraith engages wordplay that adds depth to the line: "Don't take me the wrong way/I don't want this to end." The depth lay in the line's double meaning. "Don't take me the wrong way" means both "don't misinterpret me" and "don't lead me down the wrong path -- to the end of the relationship."
"Sorry Eyes," is a standout, and the guitar delivery and whistling remind me of another beloved Columbia talent, Noah Earle. Sam Shin's cello adds a wonderful surprise on "All it Takes", the sort of simply-true love song you might include on a mix tape to your long-distance love in that not-so-faraway time when people awaited real letters and bubble-wrapped cassette tapes.
Also of note: "You Don't Care," a classic-country-sounding duet with Steph Foley, replete with delicious chord changes and background chorus.
Throughout Souvenir, Galbraith's guitar work says it all without saying too much. It is easy to take his guitar skill for granted, since it is tasteful and never unnecessarily flamboyant. John comes across as a songwriter first, intent on using his skills to serve the song. He describes the songwriting process as "sometimes difficult, sometimes easy on a good day," but the listener will be glad he worked his way through this collection.
Souvenir is one I will come back to, time and again.
-- Hilary Scott Gennaro is an internationally-known singer-songwriter . She moved to Columbia from Seattle and started the Hilary Scott Band and later, Hilary Scott and the New County Line. For years touring worldwide, she now lives in St. Louis with husband AJ Gennaro.