Nathan Xander – The Fear

Nathan Xander - The Fear

Nathan Xander - The Fear

Good old Americana. It doesn’t change too much, but has managed to maintain its audience and appeal over decades while other subgenres have burned brightly and then fizzled away. Why does it persevere when other forms ultimately fall by the wayside? Simplicity, unpretentiousness, reliability, personal applicability, non-reliance on new technologies, voice-centeredness, and historical continuity must all play a part. For his second album, The Fear, Chicago singer-songwriter Nathan Xander’s music embodies all of these qualities, continuing in the footsteps of his musical forbearers while never really sounding too much like any particular well-known practitioner.

Xander has brushed up, augmented, and clarified the basic elements of his first album, Swiftly Surely. Melodic, largely minor key, guitar parts: check. Warbly, over-emotive vocals: check. Vaguely downtrodden imagery: check.  This time around, the production is in much higher fidelity and represents a branching out to a certain extent, with songs more outwardly oriented than insular. It’s like Xander is trying to make a transition from the coffee house and open-mic circuit to bigger stages. Unfortunately, the music sounds like it only evolved as far as wine bars and early afternoon slots at regional festivals.

The further he gets from the lone troubadour of his first album the better it sounds.  “October” is a great start to the album, with a rambling little acoustic melody and slapped, chugging railroad drums accompanying a meditation on the transitional autumnal month. “Dark Horses” brings the folk-rock, brimming with pep and vocals that anyone could easily sing along to. “Colors” sports an understated guitar melody Graham Parsons and Keith Richards would approve of, as the song’s character celebrates his own shambolic passage through life. But these moments are too few when compared to the solo, man-and-his-guitar ruminations.

I once was riding in my car and listening to a Whiskeytown song called “Dancing With the Women at the Bar” where Ryan Adams half mumbles, half moans his way through the lyrics. My old man was in the passenger side, and inquired to me, “What’s wrong with him?” That’s pretty much the same feeling Xander’s singing provokes, except it doesn’t lighten up, attenuate, or quiet down over the course of eleven tracks. This oversinging makes listening from start to finish an exhausting task. It also distracts from hearing the lyrics, which is probably intentional. While he hits the spot a few times, overall the lyrics are uniformly clichéd and are delivered in the form of non-sequitur couplets. These couplets sound like authentic country and folk fare when considered separately, but they don’t work together to create songs about anything. The end result is less a successful collection of songs than a consistent pastiche of a style. This approach works for a while, but eventually exposes itself as artifice which sacrifices depth for an accurate-looking surface.

Still, after much listening, I can’t wholeheartedly approve of or pan this album. Although it makes no attempt at adding anything to the tradition on which it relies, the music is written and executed quite capably. Many fans of Americana and folk-rock will find much to like here, as the music hits its marks. But if you’re looking for meaningful songs with a sense of urgency, wisdom, or personality, you’d do better to look for more original creative voices elsewhere.

Nathan Xander