Air Traffic Controller – The One

Air Traffic Controller - The One

It’s hard to resist the charm of a serviceman who returns home from duty and channels his reflections on military life into a performing arts career.  So it is with Dave Munro, a Massachusetts native whose time in the U.S. Navy – performing a job you’ll never suspect – led to the unsuspecting discovery of formidable talents as a pop/rock songwriter.  While stationed in Puerto Rico, Munro’s slowly decaying long distance relationship with his girlfriend caused him to seek refuge in music.  Armed with only a guitar, a four-track, and an informal knowledge of chord structures that had been passed down from older siblings, Munro began penning tunes at a frantic rate.  The songs eventually made it back up to Boston, generating some considerable hype before Munro had even completed his assignment in the Caribbean.

Since ditching “Anchors Away” for “I Love Rock n’ Roll” and returning to Massachusetts,” Munro and his band have developed a loyal fanbase on the strength of the burgeoning songwriter’s earnest storytelling, everyman lyrics, and a sound that’s equal parts Traveling Wilburys, and Bruce Springsteen.  Truth be told, if the strummy rock of Air Traffic Controller had just a touch more twang to it, most of the songs on the group’s debut, The One, could very comfortably find a home on the local country station.  Enter producer and erstwhile Bostonian Bleu (a.k.a. William McAuley), whose work with the likes of The Cars and Toad the Wet Sprocket means that there’s a glossy rock radio sheen on nearly all of the album’s 12 tracks.

While claims of Munro’s songwriting prowess are completely warranted, it’s Bleu’s touch at the boards that gives The One its muscle; everything here is mixed down so that nothing – not even the shimmering layers of guitar or lush string arrangements – get in the way of Munro’s effortless ability to spin tales about second chances, failed romances, or nostalgic journeys down familiar roads.  As one might surmise, Air Traffic Controller’s songs are not the stuff of subtlety or understatement, but that’s precisely the reason why this act seems so poised for a mainstream breakthrough.

While the lyrics and melodic hooks always trump texture and instrumental nuance here, listeners are bound to find an immediate appeal in the familiarity of Air Traffic Controller’s music; the choruses are super-sized with an anthemic sing-a-long quality, and Munro’s scratchy tenor has a homely and approachable appeal.

“Don’t Tell Me What to Do” opens with a pensive acoustic riff that gives way to robust cello harmonies, female backup vocals, and drums that almost seem copped from “In the Air Tonight.”  On its upward trajectory to pop music heaven, Munro’s voice sounds strikingly fragile, particularly on lines line, “Don’t you tell me what to do / and more importantly / don’t tell me what I shouldn’t do.”

The title track is obviously drawn from personal experience, as the song opens with military boot percussion and offers allusions to days spent learning how to write songs: “Shit just happens sometimes / I put it down and it rhymes.”  Following a fairly conventional verse/chorus/verse structure, the tune is a prototype for what Air Traffic Controller does best – taking a personal experience and making it feel universal.  “Does it suck / is it great / do you think it’s just OK,” sings Munro, his worry over a failing relationship made entirely palpable.

One of the album’s finest moments comes early on in the form of “Bad Axe, MI.”  What begins as a cozy backwoods country tune about the Great Lakes State turns into an encore worthy fist pumper – à la Tom Petty’s “Into the Great Wide Open” – concerning a star looking for his big break (“So he’s off to Nashville / he’s tired of this / maybe this Boston music scene was just a myth”).  Bleu’s work in the studio is evident here, the army of voices in the chorus resonating with a blissful echo.

Munro spends most of the disc criss-crossing the familiar and comfy terrain between folk and power-pop, at turns channeling the reflective adult alternative of Jason Mraz (“Test 1,2”) and even the rousing post-grunge of Hoobastank (“This Road”).  He tackles contemporary religious conundrums on “God Has a Plan” (Does God have a plan for me / do I have to go to church / or can I watch it on TV?”), and recounts an awkward bedroom encounter on the country radio-flavored “Foot of the Bed.”

The One doesn’t offer much in the way of eccentricity, risk-taking, or maverick performances, but it’s going to be hard to find someone else in the independent market whose music so naturally begs for mass consumption; this is big, hooky, surging pop music that readily deserves an audience just as large.