Barton Carroll,
The Lost One
(Skybucket, 2007)

Barton Carroll, who grew up in North Carolina and now lives in Seattle, is a veteran of indie-rock bands of which I, largely oblivious to what goes on in pop music, have not heard. This is, of course, no reflection on Carroll, whose name was also unfamiliar to me. As I put The Lost One on the player for the first time, I had no idea what to expect.

I did not expect to hear a young Tom Paxton, and that's who came to mind as I heard the first cut, "Pretty Girl's Going to Ruin My Life (Again)." Well, except for Carroll's broader vocal range and semi-eerie falsetto. Also "Pretty Girl's" -- a, er, pretty song -- seems to breathe air colder and rarer than the room-temperature oxygen Paxton inhales. Nonetheless, I doubt Paxton would be offended if somebody mistook this for one of his countless-by-now compositions. It's the sort of song, especially its chorus, that haunts mind and memory. It's with you, in other words, even when the stereo is resting.

Some songs continue in this vein, such as "Superman," which also feels faintly Paxtonesque, more than vaguely sensitive singer-songwriter, yet saved by sardonic distance, even hostility, not to mention undeniable intelligence and literacy. (Barton clearly is a guy who reads and thinks when he's not writing songs.) "Superman's" chorus is the plaint of a man less emotionally stricken than emotionally Nietzschean: "Don't leave me / Just stay here and please me / I'm a superman." The narrator demands our sympathies, but he can't draw them forth because we recognize him, even if he doesn't recognize himself, as a jerk. An Appalachian-sounding fiddle swoops sort of out of nowhere, welcome but surprising, since its quaint and twangy resonance fits uneasily alongside the song's distinctly modern sense of narcissistic entitlement.

There is not a lot of rock as such on the album ("Ramona" and "Dark Place" being the notable exceptions). It's mostly acoustic guitars, fiddle, piano and some faint drums. Electric guitar gives bottom to some arrangements (e.g., "Burning Red & Blue") while on occasion Carroll's falsetto wafts off into a foggy valley to resound like a Swiss yodel. Closer to my taste are the relatively more straightforward pieces, for example "These Days are Gone & My Heart is Breaking," which looks back wistfully but unsentimentally ("There's a mean streak inside of me") in a musical letter to a friend from another time. "Small Things," so different from all before and after it as to feel as if dropped in from a different album, is an unsettlingly grim ballad set in World War II-era Europe.

In many ways Lost One recalls the sound of the original post-revival songwriters of the mid- to late 1960s, like early Tim Buckley, Steve Noonan, Jackson Browne, Randy Burns (to whom what ever happened?) and others, singing mostly personal lyrics to tuneful folk-like melodies. "Brace Yourself" even may make you think, at least at moments, of the Incredible String Band. The album ends with a nicely conceived arrangement of the traditional "Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still."

review by
Jerome Clark

31 May 2008

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