The Drama You've Been Craving
Monday April 2, 2001
Sean Croghan: Maxing Out Cupid's Credit Card
Taunted by Morrissey 'on the stereo'
By Michael Goldberg
There's nothing fashionable about Sean Croghan's affecting solo debut, From Burnt Orange to Midnight Blue. No gimmicks. No reinventing rock 'n' roll. No high-profile guests. Nothing, really, to catch the attention of either the overground or the underground. So, as Croghan sings in "Gweneveire," the soulful album opener, "whaddayagonna do now?"
Just listen, I say.
Even the album cover art seems designed not to draw attention to itself: a photo of Croghan so severely out of focus that at first you think it's just some abstract art.
Only From Burnt Orange to Midnight Blue is one of the best albums I've heard so far this year. It's the debut release on a brand-new record label called In Music We Trust. Unless label founder Alex Steininger is a marketing wizard and ace promotion man, it won't get played on the radio, sad to say. It's one of those albums you'll have to seek out at indie record stores, or order online.
I don't want to mislead you, but listening to Sean Croghan's album as I write this reminds me of the first time I played my import copy of Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True. And sometimes there's something in Croghan's voice that makes me think of Beth Orton, whose music I love dearly.
In making his album, Croghan appears to have utilized real, old-school instruments he credits musicians who play drums (not drum programming or a drum machine), bass, electric guitar, piano, Hammond organ, lap steel guitar. It sounds natural, cut live in the room.
Croghan's voice is solid, distinct, almost workmanlike. There's an appealing, all-my-cards-are-on-the-table openness to his singing. The emotion is right there. He occasionally slips into a falsetto, and at times sounds slightly hoarse. I get the feeling that he doesn't care much if he embarrasses himself in public. Croghan seems willing to risk being laughed at; it's not going to stop him from being romantic or pathetic or vulnerable or sincere. And who can keep from smiling at the line in "Gweneveire," "Morrissey's taunting me on the stereo."
Before going solo, Croghan led two groups the punk band Crackerbash and the power-pop combo Jr. High. On From Burnt Orange to Midnight Blue, he's gotten some help from former Freewheelers' leader/organist Luther Russell and The Minders' Martyn Leaper and Rebecca Cole, who contribute vocals, keyboards and drums to several tracks.
Croghan sings about the girls he wants and the guys who win them away. "He's whispering in your ear/ Spinning out the absolute sweet nothings," he sings over a track that could have fit on This Year's Model, in the brilliant "Cupid's Credit Card." And a little later: "What baby wants, baby gets/ Even now that her affection slips from hand to hand to hand again." And then: "Zero to nothing in seconds flat/ The new love became new world order/ And who's going to play the piper now may I ask/ When he comes looking for the balance of power/ The wages of sin they're above union scale/ Well that's not enough to cover my bail." And, finally: "Desire is easy, love is hard/ Put it on Cupid's credit card..."
Many of these songs are about feelings of loneliness, rejection, of wanting a lover, not just a friend. In "Gweneveire" the singer's trying to get over a crush on a girl who's takin' up with "that bastard." "But if you're gonna hang with that boy/ I guess I'd better let you go," he sings forlornly.
We've likely all felt some of what Croghan is singing about. Listening to his songs is a bit like going through that box of photographs you kept of old lovers.
The Singer, Not The Song
I've been trying to put my finger on why this album has entranced me since I began listening to it a week before I began writing this. Part of it, certainly, is the exquisite arrangements that make each of the songs stand out. The dynamics quiet moments preceding powerful crescendos are breathtaking. "Otis Tolstoy" is a textbook example of a soul record.
It always seems to come back to the singer. Without the great songs, without the lyrics that feel so right and real, without the sensitive players and those arrangements, the album wouldn't hold up. But, finally, it's Croghan the singer that makes me care. Spend some time with From Burnt Orange to Midnight Blue and you'll care too.
When Croghan sings "I just wanna see your face," during the album's passionate conclusion, "Otis Tolstoy," it's so powerful. It sounds the way being apart from one's lover feels. Can you ask for more from a singer than that?
Michael Goldberg is the president of insiderone.net. He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.
© 2001 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.