The Central Standards – Refrain

When you’re a music junkie, it’s fun to try and pick out the influence of artists on one another in style, sound, lyrics, and voice. Discovering clear influences, however subtle, tends to impress or disappoint listeners; i.e. we marvel at the progress new bands have made from their models’ initial efforts, or we blast the new blood for copying. So how do we react when we hear not an influence but a spot-on delivery by someone who sounds like someone else but seems to do so naturally, without deliberate effort?
Case in point: “Secrets to Sing,” the opening track on The Central Standards’ pleasant debut album, Refrain. When he sings his clever chorus, “We’ve got secrets to sing / And songs to keep,” Jeff Capps sounds exactly like Michael Stipe. Capps even has the same quirky, slightly Southern pitch as Stipe. He hits the high notes without cracking, and Ted Horrell provides equally impressive vocals and guitar skills. Play the third stanza of “Secrets to Sing” to a friend familiar with REM and she’ll swear this is Stipe’s unreleased solo record, then interrogate you about where and how you found it. “Secrets to Sing” is a triumph with illustrative lyrics: “I’m a silhouette / But my heart’s still true / Still beats for you / I’m a silhouette / But my heart’s still true / Still belongs to you.”
“Since I’ve Been Gone” is catchy and affecting, with the opening lines: “Since I’ve been gone / Nothing seems quite the same / I’m electrified, undignified, petrified, unsane / Since I’ve been here / Daydreams keep me awake / I’m a lot like I could’ve been when I couldn’t stand to stay.” The Indigo Girls wouldn’t be out of place singing those words, but it’s Capps who felt and wrote them and his band mates from Memphis who joined him to successfully record “Since I’ve Been Gone.” For his part, Horrell also offers some self-penned gems, including “Changed,” with gorgeous harmonization by the two songwriters and guitarists. Again, the lyrics are personal and frank: “I could keep all of my darker thoughts from you / I could act the way you dream about / And do what you want me to / I could alter my response to fit your mood / And I’d be changed / But it wouldn’t be the same.” Marty Christopher and Casey Smith make a major mark on “Changed” with their drums and bass, respectively.
Unfortunately, some of the other songs on Refrain lack the charm and knock-out melodies of the aforementioned tracks. “T-Ho’s Broken Radio” is a loud Southern rocker that sounds like run-of-the-mill bar band music. Its counterpart, “Jay-C’s Broken Radio,” whines amidst too much twang. “Still Stay” occasionally mixes slight pauses and declarations, but it’s an average country tune more than anything. “Greatest Day” is a three-minute pop song that’s notable for its inquisitive tone and compositional similarity to better-known tracks by They Might Be Giants, but it lacks a certain kick. “No Man Alive” tastefully features a harmonica, but its country drawl and “Oh Lord, I Try” chorus intros suck the energy from the album’s better moments.
This criticism notwithstanding, The Central Standards have several more songs on Refrain that grab the listener with their sentimental singing and image-laden lyrics that immediately hit the mark. “What Makes You Think” is one such track. With Capp’s voice a bit more nasal and possessing a slight British form, the song recalls some of the more crunching tunes by The Ocean Blue from its debut album. That self-titled effort came from a group of recent high school graduates in 1989; Capps and Horrell were full-time high school teachers until committing themselves more to careers in music in 2001, and “What Makes You Think” is one of the best songs to be heard in 2004, on or off school grounds.
Perhaps the best song on The Central Standards’ debut album is also its most nostalgic and brilliant creation, appropriately titled “Otis Redding Song.” The track opens with a melody similar to “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” but expands on Redding’s lyrical topics, with a smilingly discouraged approach. Horrell’s song-writing and singing talents are all over this majestic track: “Sittin’ when the darkness falls / I’ll be sittin’ when the morning comes / But it doesn’t help me at all / I’m singing a sad, sad song.” As good as those opening lines are, the chorus is even sharper: “Maybe she’s right / And I don’t know a thing about love / Maybe she’s right / And I don’t know what I’m speaking of / Maybe she’s right / But I know that I could prove her wrong / If I could write an Otis Redding song.” Special, clever, genuine; enough said.
Refrain is a mixed bag of great successes and typical Southern folk songs, some rockier than others. As a debut album, it delivers most of the time and distinguishes The Central Standards from many groups with a similar sound. If Capps and Horrell focus less on volume and country motifs and devote more of their efforts to witty lyrics in the folk-pop style, they’ll come across with much more appeal on future recordings.