Sunday, April 5, 2009

On the Ground - Peasant

On the Ground

Paper Garden Records.

SCQ Rating: 81%

A semi-recent Family Guy moment I caught a few weeks ago depicted dysfunctional father Peter Griffin illustrating how lame college boys have destroyed what it means to play an acoustic guitar. There Peter sat beneath a tree, shirt open and shoeless, singing about drinking through depression, missing a girl, and facing his stereo speakers out of his window… all in the hopes of impressing a female listening in. It’s funny because (A) the lyrics are generic to the point where parody doesn’t even need to improvise, (B) we could each name a few guys who penned near-identical songs of faux-anguish and (C) most of those guys were inspired by a few songwriters who managed to make a fortune doing the same thing.

So whether we’re targeting Dashboard Confessional, early Bright Eyes or, yes, Jack Johnson, you can understand why the singer-songwriter armed only with an acoustic guitar might give me a serious case of the shivers… not simply because it’s an overpopulated, homogenized heap of hearts on my sleeve but because everyone (including your friend) thinks they can pull it off. Meanwhile Damien DeRose, who writes under the moniker of Peasant, comes along and wastes no time proving he’s the real deal. His voice and lyrics are legitimately soulful, leaving no trace of popular Motown-imitation, no doubt that DeRose has fully experienced his own storytelling. From the relationship standstill apparent in ‘Not Your Saviour’ to the lost-letter march of ‘We’re Good’, there’s no question that these songs share a lived-in quality; written from the heart and painstakingly perfected. The best singer-songwriters are those who can manage full-length records without slipping – even briefly – into acoustic apathy and giving credit where it’s due, On the Ground delivers on every track. There’s that lone melancholic guitar line cascading over DeRose’s strumming at the tail-end of ‘Exposure’, some faint harmonica breezing through ‘The Wind’ and who could forget the morning-dulled guitar pulsating through ‘Stop For Her’; a song every guy wishes he wrote.

These folk songs remain fresh thanks to smart arrangements but what deems this debut so memorable is easily DeRose’s voice. An original hybrid that trades off between the vocal strengths of Bon Iver and Elliott Smith, this Doylestown, Pennsylvania native sings urban lullabys (‘Impeccable Manners’) and lovelorn farewells (‘Those Days’) with equal conviction, resulting in one of the year’s most promising debuts. The influence of the late Smith is particularly reoccurring, not due to any morose drama that permeates Elliott’s career but because On the Ground showcases the long-lost power of a man who can weave multiple narratives with little more than his acoustic guitar. That intimacy and comfort earned between songwriter and listener negates what strangers we really are, and like Smith, Peasant makes a fresh connection, succeeding where most troubadours (and college kids, for that matter) irreversibly fail.

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