Ted Garber – American Rail

Ted Garber - American Rail

Singer-songwriter Ted Garber and his potent influences are displayed in bountiful amounts on the DC resident’s globally minded debut, American Rail. Growing up the son of a folk musician, and later taking up residency in New Orleans, the enriching culture of the Big Easy’s R&B scene made as much of an impression on Garber as the Latin and Bossa styles he encountered during travels to South America. Garber’s composition and performance habits are decidedly American – both suggest John Mayer’s bluesier side mixed with the occasionally whimsical and frequently exuberant adult alternative of David Gray – but as implied by the symbolism of the album’s title, there’s also a constant itch to explore what exists beyond the familiar comfort of our native musical bubble. And, like the enigmatic Bruce Springsteen, Garber’s always got a story to tell, no matter where the road happens to be taking him.

American Rail is frontloaded with Garber’s grandest gestures. “It’s About Time” kicks things off with exceptional verve, showing off our leading man’s chops on both the harmonica and guitar while the rhythm section of Bill Enderlin (bass) and Patrick Tiglao (drums) lays down a rousing blues/funk stomp. “Don’t ever make me a martyr / don’t ever make me a saint / make me an ordinary man / one who’s got something to say,” Garber sings. The everyman posturing of the opener is a theme that plays itself out through the rest of the album, suggesting that despite his myriad talents, Garber doesn’t want to be put on any sort of pedestal.

In the ensuing twenty-five minutes, the full scope of Garber’s sonic palette is explored, as he jumps from Under the Table and Dreaming-era Dave Matthews crooning (“Break Me Down”), to sultry jazz-inspired pop (“Montevideo”), to dirty Dixieland funk (“Giving Tree”). The latter is a paean to the ravaged and slowly reviving post-Katrina New Orleans, though the soulful harmonica solo and fluttertonguing trumpet licks indicate that the tune is predicated on the triumph of hope, rather than the despair that pervaded that city’s landscape in the years immediately following the hurricane.

“Strike It Up”, though mired in trite statements of moving up and moving out (“Strike it up / load it down / get in the fast lane / and head out of town”), features a wonderful array of instrumental textures, including a full wind section – trumpet, trombone, tenor, and bari sax – an afro-beat propelled by auxiliary percussion, and even some organ. Not one for tension and release, Garber seems more interested in reveling in feel-good vibes and party atmospheres that often lend his songs a meandering repetitiveness. The appeal of uplifting jams can’t be denied, but a little ebb and flow in song structure would’ve made for a more engaging listen.

The album’s second half isn’t nearly as galvanizing, though the shift from blue-collar punk (“March of the Working Class Hero”) to surf-rock boogie (“A Lot Like Me”) is noteworthy. If there’s one key element missing throughout here, it’s Garber’s ability to generate a memorable hook. While it’s hard to fault the guy for his joyful messages and soulful performance aesthetic, there’s frustration to be had in hearing a beautiful song like “Following You” (“I love you / in this dance we do / I’m following you”) that, as a result of Garber’s wry vocals and flat melodic contour, comes across with a strong sense of emotional detachment that belies his otherwise impassioned music making.

American Rail doesn’t bring anything profound or trailblazing to the table, but if you wish Jason Mraz had more of a roots-rock vibe and a few new tricks up his sleeve, then Ted Garber has your remedy.