It’s tough sometimes to discuss new artists without mentioning their influences — call it a feeble attempt on the reviewer’s part to ease the reader’s transition from the unfamiliar to the familiar via a laundry list of popular artists. But when the influences become so intertwined with the art they inspire that they leave sonic traces in every corner of the record, they cease to be touchstones and become a part of the narrative. Such was the case with Swedish troubadour the Tallest Man on Earth (born Kristian Matsson) — whose rampant Dylanizing seemed, at first, too blatant to be true — and such is the case with John Hurlahe’s Cass River County Line.
Cass River County Line
Out of the ashes of local Michigan indie troupe Bird Dog, Hurlahe emerges with a promising debut that, while rooted in his own experiences of young Midwestern life, more often than not sounds more imitative than personal or revelatory.
With carefully double-tracked vocals delivered in a slightly shaky, boyish cadence, Hurlahe reproduces Bright Eyes so convincingly that it’s tough to know where his inspiration starts and Conor Oberst’s ends. It’s a well-worn sound: Oberst’s up-tempo living room folk has inspired many bedroom artists to come out of the woodwork. While Hurlahe is certainly better than most at reproducing Oberst’s aesthetic, it seems strange to adopt as one’s own many of the idiosyncrasies that have done much to set Oberst apart — vocal warbles, distant microphone placement and all. The crucial ingredient that Hurlahe lacks, however, to complete the Oberst takeoff — and, also, why his album ultimately fails to leave a lasting impression — is the fragile, heart-on-the-sleeve honesty and nakedness that colors that singer-songwriter’s best songs.
Hurlahe comes close with “Metropolitan Past,” one of the more inventive and personal moments on the album, which samples speeches from 1960s Detroit mayor Jerome Cavanagh. Eulogizing the lost era of a once-booming auto industry and a pre-white flight Detroit, the song shuffles into a waltzing ballad before Hurlahe emotionally delivers: “Is this the broken-down world that they had in mind? / And who else are they? / We’ll find out in time.”
“Silver Screen” is a folk stomp with handclaps and a sing-along chorus that shows the young songwriter at his most wide-eyed and cheery, while “Tall Tale” is a slightly moodier take with more expansive productions (thanks to a B3 organ and some well-placed electric guitar). Elsewhere, more wistful songs of young love and rural living color the album. Hurlahe is at his best behind a harmonica and a frantically-strummed acoustic guitar, on tracks like the imaginative “Churchgrove St.”
To be clear, the deft, backwoods production of Cass River County Line, while light, sounds pretty good: With a tambourine-addled rhythm section and plenty of tastefully layered banjo and acoustic guitar noodling, it’s enough to give any folk fan a fix. But those searching for more emotional depth or melodic complexity might have to wait another album or two before Hurlahe can transform Oberst’s limited palette into something he can really call his own.
Still, pastiche, when done well, can work wonders — just ask Ryan Adams, or Kristian Matsson. And if the Swedes can get away with it in 2010, why can’t we?