Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Richie Lawrence: Melancholy Waltz

The songwriter and pianist Richie Lawrence is no newcomer to making records. He’s been sporadically employed as a sideman and session player since the late seventies, with mainstreams groups like the Tim Goodman Band and obscure acts like the theatrical polka act Rotondi. Now he strikes out on his own for the first time with Melancholy Waltz, a mellow singer-songwriter record, and the results are mixed.

His vocals make it immediately clear why he’s never tried to make it as a solo artist before. His voice is flat and dull, and the big, open notes he favors always seem slightly off key. He seems to know this, though, and compensates accordingly – nearly half the tracks are instrumentals, and he doesn’t challenge his vocal chords with tricky melodies or large intervals. This is very much an album by a pianist who happens to do a little singing and accordion playing.

It's hard to think of an album with a warmer, richer piano sound -- put on headphones and it begins to feel as though you're curled up inside the belly of that centenarian baby grand. His voice is too flat and dull to carry the singer-songwriter material, but there's a generosity of spirit in these creaky songs, and no lack of love lavished on the instrumental tones, the plaintive wheeze of the accordion, the easy leaning on weathered, sturdy old melodies. To his credit, he doesn't rely too heavily on his weak vocals, letting the Steinway do most of the talking in its fluent, graceful baritone. His playing is loose and wry, virtuosic but never boastful. The production is crisp and clear, but the songs are barrel-aged and smoky.

It's not a great album by any stretch of the imagination -- it's too predictable and pedestrian for that. But there is something here -- a deeply personal statement of melancholy serenity from a figure who's spent three decades lost on the backstreets and byways of the music industry. Now he's taking his turn in the spotlight, and even if he never quite seems like he belongs there, he stands in it bravely, offering up his unadorned voice and sweetly unpoetic lyrics, his elegant playing and his battered yearnings. Melancholy Waltz is not a particularly great album, but it is a particularly truthful one. And, listening to it now as I watch Philadelphia slowly disappear under a heavy blanket of snow, that seems like more than enough.

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