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Friday, March 28, 2008

Mike McCarroll: At The Crossroads

When you receive an album from a relatively unknown artist, it's always a surprise. You look at the album wondering what to expect from lyrics, instrumentation, and overall effect of the album. When I learned that Mike McCarroll's album At The Crossroads was a fusion of country, rock and blues, I wasn't sure what to make of it. I'm always a little bit hesitant when it comes to musical fusions, because it either works or it's a complete dud. Having said that, lets get to the reason we're all here...

For the most part, I like At The Crossroads purely for the fact that this album has great potential. While it's not my favorite genres of music, it's McCarroll's heart and soul, and quite literally, stories from his life. You have to respect when an artist is not so formulated as to manufacture a song from the thoughts of, "I know this works, so I'll do this" or "everyone else is doing that, so I will too". While there are elements to this album that do not sound entirely original, it is my opinion that Mike McCarroll has indeed achieved originality.

One of the characteristics I like about this album is, it's not all the same. So often, a band/artist will produce an album where every song is a carbon copy of the song prior. McCarroll's tracks are very different from one another, both in content and sound. "Business Traveler Blues" and "Road Rage" are two songs that instantly become stories. They are both rugged, yet upbeat tracks that are entirely about what their titles claim; no metaphors here. What I love about these two songs in particular is their uniqueness. How many other songs have you heard dealing with the art of road rage? Personally, I've heard of one other and McCarroll's is surpassing by miles.

Musically, both instrumentally and vocally, there are certain tracks that I enjoy more than others, particularly "Get It On", "Saturday Night" and "House of Blues". "Get It On" is probably my favorite song on this album because I love the different sounds in this composition. At it's beginning, McCarroll sets off with a "talking" verse and then sings right into the chorus. The chorus is my favorite section as it reminds me of a good old southern, classic rock hit; it's definitely a guitar driven song, which I'm quite fond of. "Saturday Night" is strangely similar to many other country songs due to its common sounds. The chorus in particular seems to have the same structure as "A Little Less Talk and A Lot More Action", another very successful song. It's not a bad thing, as the familiarity works for him in this instance, but too much similarity will not bode well for any aspiring musician. Eventually, it becomes too routine. "House of Blues" is a very good piece that I could definitely hear as a country hit, with a little bit of tweaking. In fact, if he did not yet have this full album and only had select songs for a demo, I would highly recommend he put "House of Blues" on there, along with the two just mentioned. "House of Blues" has some elements which help its interest factor including a good use of vocal distortion in the beginning and heavy fiddle and steel guitar instrumentation, adding to the country feel. This is overall, one of McCarroll's stronger songs. The last track on the album, "I Wonder" also has a really intriguing flute feature, which grabs your attention almost immediately. It pairs nicely with the guitar.

While At The Crossroads has great potential, it doesn't come without it's flaws. "Must've Been Crazy" actually begins pretty unusual as McCarroll's voice suddenly reminds me of Tom Petty (not a bad thing), so at first I think, "Hey, this is different... I think I'll like this one". Almost as sure as I've said this to myself, the chorus comes at me and so do the female vocals, a.k.a. the main problem with this song. I think the girl/girls doing the vocal backing on this song have some pitch issues which are completely revealed in this song. It's hard to enjoy your listening from that point on because the female vocals are so obnoxious. Also, I'm not particularly fond of the way that the background vocals continue to hold long after McCarroll has cut off on the "I must've been crazy" sections; and also, if you can't do melismas (the embellishing of one note by singing several in its place -- i.e. Mariah Carey), then don't. They are awkward effects if not properly done. It's truly a shame since this song had the potential to be more appealing then it ended up being. In the track "I'm Down", I find myself generally enjoying the listening experience. However, I take issue with McCarroll's voice seeming a little more shaky and less confident than in others prior. There are several times throughout the song where his pitch becomes a little uneven.

I am certain that I would have enjoyed At The Crossroads more if I'd picked up on a particular style of McCarroll's throughout the album. I do like that he boldly chooses to fuse these genres together, but at some point, I feel like to be an artist who's really identifiable, you must have a niche. All the great one's have a niche that sets them apart and I would have liked to have seen him develop one as this album progressed. My only other real problem with this album is in the production realm. There are several times throughout At The Crossroads where I feel like the vocals are too far forward, exposing vocal imperfections and making the quality sound less professional. Examples of this can be found on tracks like, "Business Traveler Blues", "Train a-Movin' On", "Road Rage", and "I'm Down". The vocal mix on these songs stands out too much and could be softened a little to sound less "high school garage band-ish". The vocals shouldn't sound like they were laid down on one track with the instrumentation on another. Good producing should be able to form one cohesive sound through the mixing process. At times, especially during those mentioned tracks, I feel like the mix is a distraction, taking you away from the song itself and making the listener aware of notes which are a bit off. I'd hope to see this element worked with in further albums as well.

At the end of the day, Mike McCarroll's At The Crossroads is a nice album, once again, with a great deal of potential to spur him in new and exciting musical directions. Though there were some good tracks and some misses, I know that a great deal of work went into this album, and it shows. I look forward to hearing more from Mike McCarroll in the future.

Key Tracks
1. "Get It On"
2. "Saturday Night"
3. "House of Blues"

4 out of 10 stars

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