(Inked Sound Records, CD)
Sometimes, songwriting is a puzzle. You can be blessed with an angelic voice, poetic depth and melodic grace. But until you learn to wield those abilities in concert with one another, the pieces never quite fit as a whole. With his third EP, Issue 3: Emily, Burlington’s Andrew Parker-Renga proves he has the requisite components. And he takes modest strides toward putting them all together.
A shuffling brushed-snare beat, courtesy of drummer Ryan Hayes, introduces the title track. Pat Melvin’s sturdy mandolin lines meet a toe-tapping progression reminiscent of Bright Eyes’ “First Day of My Life.” Omaha’s indie-folk magnate is an acknowledged influence, and Parker-Renga favors a similarly intimate, hushed tone. While he doesn’t yet claim Conor Oberst’s sly lyrical moxie, his feel for melody is natural, his delivery heartfelt.
With mixed results, the Berklee-trained singer opens up on the next track, “After 7 Years.” Here and throughout the EP, we catch glimpses of Parker-Renga’s considerable vocal talents. When he’s on, he possesses dynamic emotive ability. However, he occasionally seems encumbered by over-ambition. The tune is a slow-burning, alt-folk power ballad, perfect for swaying with your best gal, lighter held high. Ryan Erskine’s driving piano builds into what should be the climactic bridge. Unfortunately, Parker-Renga falls flat as he overestimates his range, delivering thin falsetto with suspect pitch.
Emotional payoff is similarly lacking on “The Work Song.” What begins as a pleasantly breezy acoustic pop nugget devolves into overbearing melodrama. Early in the song, Parker-Renga again showcases his knack for clever melody. But then he uncorks a string of awkward, over-the-top vocal lines. As with the previous number, the primary culprit seems to be a failing of technique. It’s not that he lacks the chops to pull off such soaring dalliances — he doesn’t. Rather, he never seems quite ready to do so, running out of breath — and subsequently sliding in pitch — at each melodic apex.
Each of the preceding songs bears the earmarks of a maturing artist not yet fully in command of his talents. On the whole they are an intriguing, if at times frustrating, collection. But on the closing number, “19 Going on 33,” Parker-Renga puts it all together. His airy tone flirts with a nimble melody, winding around subtly potent lyrics. Where he previously attempts to force dramatic tension, here he lays back and allows his natural vocal abilities room to breathe. It is the most elegantly understated of Emily’s four tracks. And it is easily its finest, perhaps offering a hint of what we can expect in the future from this raw but undeniably gifted tunesmith.
Andrew Parker-Renga celebrates the release of Issue 3: Emily this Thursday, April 16, at Parima’s Acoustic Lounge.