I’m imagining that the recording sessions for local quintet Flatlander’s debut Shadow went down one of two ways. One, you’ve got a room full of musicians making pleasant sounds together. And as the jam winds down and everyone nods and smiles, someone in the room asks, “OK, now who’s gonna sing?” After a long silence, and because no one else volunteers, one member finally raises his hand, willing to take the bullet, knowing very well he’s not really qualified. Or . . . same room, same musicians, same pleasant noise when the same unqualified dude says, “All right now, I’m gonna be the singer. And because it’s my microphone, there’s not much you can do about it.”
I am more than willing to give benefit of the doubt and say the former situation is the case. But because there are no band credits in the liner notes and Flatlander’s website is not what I would call “fully functional,” it is hard to assign culpability. But the fact remains that vocals are the album’s biggest hurdle.
There are singers who can do “flat” and manage to fully emote. Chrissie Hynde and Lou Reed come to mind. And there are some great nasal singers out there. Say, Mark Knopfler and Tom Petty. However, you get none of that with Flatlander. You just get flat and nasal.
Now, if you can get past that and allow for a group that wears its “jam band” influences on its sleeve, there are some nice moments on the album — EP, really. Opener “Wintertime Today” has a nice, shimmying newgrass vibe. And “Can I Come Home With You” is a mellow, bong-packin’ — it says so right in the lyrics — “Box of Rain” wannabe. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. On “She,” Flatlander stretches out a bit and hits a nice groove, highlighted by a solid guitar solo — cribbed from the New Bohemians guy who was cribbing from Jerry Garcia. The highlight, if you want to call it that, is “Jon’s Song,” which shies away (slightly) from the jam scene and manages enough edge and jangle to evoke early R.E.M. A few more like this and Flatlander may be on to something.
Symptomatic of the aforementioned issues — vocal ineptitude, uninspired composition, etc. — the few remaining tracks just aren’t especially noteworthy. But the live songs tacked on to the end of the disc do imply that if you don’t mind parting with a $5 cover — and you get a few beers down — you could have a not-unpleasant evening checking these guys out at a local bar.