Tony Romanello – Counting Stars

Tony Romanello
Counting Stars

This disc touched off a bit of a debate between my friend and I over whether or not it was fair to compare new musicians to the artists they’re drawing their influence from. For example, the year is 1998 and Guy A loves Pavement, puts together a little band, steals some hooks and some vocal phrasings, records a little album on his friend’s 8-track, self-releases it, and sends it around to get a little press. It falls into the hands of Guy B, who loves writing about music and hearing new bands, writes for a little web zine, and who proceeds to lay into Guy A’s disc for not being as good as Slanted and Enchanted. More topically, Guy C, riding high on local success, puts together a huge sounding disc that draws together his influences, big ones like Brian Wilson and Jeff Buckley and XO-era Elliott Smith, and tries to make his own grand pop statement. Not a new scenario by any means, but people attempting to make grand pop statement are always cause for concern. Yes, we finally agreed, if you’re going to ape your influences, be prepared to get held up to the flames.
Which is not to say Tony Romanello is aping anyone, necessarily. He thinks big and can’t really be faulted for it. On “Tell Me Please” he even has the guts to own up to it: “Tell me, please, are you just like me? / Do you imitate, fall somewhere in between?…Do you imitate what you’re trying to be?” The answer again, I think, is yes. Almost every band imitates where they’re coming from, whether they’ll admit or not. There are just a tiny percentage of artists whose imitation becomes something more; it consistently builds on where it came from and creates a new kind of history for itself. Which isn’t to say only these artists who transcend their pedigree are worth your time. Lots of bands manage to weave their influences into a worthwhile voice and produce memorable albums, and great pop songs spring from mediocre artists quite frequently.
Unfortunately, Romanello thinks too grandly to even scale his songs down and produce a great pop moment. While Counting Stars produces some nice ones that could have saved it, it’s sunk by the generic sentiments that make up its core. “An Insomniac’s Diary” starts the disc with big strings, but its recycled hooks quickly wear thin. His mawkish treatments on “The Amazing Disappearing Man” and elsewhere throughout the 13 tracks reveal roots that run a tad too close to 80’s balladeers or even contemporary radio pap (Rob Thomas, et al). Placing the song second on the disc creates a dip in momentum that slows things to a halt. Its lyrics (“One hand is all his righteous deeds / The other holds his greed / And one man can’t hold these consequences”) seem to be drawn directly from Bruce Springsteen’s “Cautious Man” (“On his right hand Billy tattooed the word love and on his left hand was the word fear / And in which hand he held his fate was never clear”) and “Two Faces.” It can’t really come close to the stark poetry of either of those songs.
Other times, songs are just built around bad ideas. “My Opinions on the Tragedy” is another mediocre variation on the worn-out musings over Superman’s symbolic struggles (“They say Superman would give it all up to have the chance to become one of us / I know your weakness and it’s not kryptonite / No matter how you save us you’re still not the same as us”). “De Leon” is a take on, believe it, Ponce de Leon and the deeper tragedy of his quest for the Fountain of Youth (“A prize or a curse, at what sum to find holy fountains and be young? / The conquests, spilled blood, was it worth the spear I could not overcome?”). Quick, get “Xanadu” onto the turntable so I can be free of this memory. One of the disc’s less adorned tracks, “The Artist,” sounds to be directly descended from Jeff Buckley’s “Lilac Wine.” While it sports the album’s best chorus and is a welcome relief from the sometime overbearing orchestral assault, it really only makes me lonely for Grace.
Romanello’s aspirations are grand, and he certainly gives his songs the royal treatment, but it’s almost tough to listen to the disc without cringing over how damn expensive it must have been to make. I can’t help but think that more time should have been spent laboring over the songs themselves; you know, the melodies and the lyrics, instead of arranging the horn parts and coordinating schedules with the string section. Clearly influenced by X/O, I also wonder if he’s spent much time with Either/Or. Lo-fi recordings can’t kill good songs, and grand productions can’t save mediocre ones. Counting Stars is certainly an accomplishment. Lacking an original voice and unable to carve out a space of its own, though, it fails to be memorable.