It’s a frightening thing for an artist to put aside the accessories of bass, drums, keyboards and more and to simply put his or her music into the form of solely vocals and acoustic guitars. With those other elements, one can cover up for subtle lacks of creativity or content or even expertise with points of noise or highlight one instrument over another, drowning out another lesser moment in a song. But with those instruments removed? It’s a whole other story.
Kevin Wilson is a brave man. Already having recorded these songs in a more fleshed out style on his release, Self Portrait, Wilson this times opts for the stark, simple acoustic approach. Granted, his earlier outing had other things to set it aside as well, from the full-bodied band backing to studio artists singing Wilson’s material. After listening to friends and critics who suggested that the artist ought to tackle the vocals himself, Wilson has done just that on this release. In his own words, he “took seven songs…broke them down to just acoustic guitar and vocal arrangements and recorded them.” It’s a brave and bold approach, one that has mixed results.
The most obvious point of interest is in the change of the timbre of the songs themselves. While there are still elements of structure still intact, Wilson’s Saturday Session tracks evoke a far more different vibe than their more contemporary predecessors. While the Self Portrait versions of these songs hinted at rock, blues, and more, this collection is far gentler, building on both Wilson’s warm vocal, tinged by just the slightest hint of pleasant rasp, and the solo acoustic backdrop. The songs have metamorphosed from rocky fare to something that melds itself into music that would be welcomed easily in the contemporary folk movement.
The second obvious shift is in Wilson’s more blatant influence here. Listening to the tracks from each album, one is reminded of how removed the intent or emphasis of a song can be. Where a hired singer might see a point of emphasis here, the author of the track finds it elsewhere, seeing it as an apparent point of emotional contact lyrically. Plus, as has already been mentioned, gone are the polished rock chops of Wilson’s hired guns as the artist’s own vocals now grace these tracks and with good results.
And overall performance-wise, that’s what listeners get. There are really not any strong points of failure here. Wilson’s vocals are solid and well balanced while his playing is superb. Despite the starkness of the acoustic vibe, there are no glaringly bad notes or mis-sung lyrics. Add to that the fact that the production is solid, keeping the mix just right, and there’s little to say on that end.
Therefore, the attention must turn to the creativity of the arrangements. If it were a listener’s first time through, without having the base songs to hear, the experience would be dramatically different. Yet, with those songs to compare things to, it muddies the waters. And it does that simply because Wilson paints himself into a corner. The lyrics are the same but the arrangements here just find themselves falling flat. A listener hearing “Self Portrait” today may just as easily mistake it for “Tomorrow Never Comes” tomorrow, based on the arrangements alone. Sure they’re played solidly but unfortunately without enough variety to really pull the overall package together.
Yet, Kevin Wilson is to be commended for his moxie on this one. It’s the rare artist who has the guts to deconstruct his own work and repackage it in a form wholly different but that’s just what the artist has done here. The results overall may be mixed but the effort is to be applauded. And that applause will keep ringing out because, while Wilson may have faltered a bit here, the artist clearly has the right stuff and listeners can expect him to bounce back strong with his next release.
Reviewed by Andrew Greenhalgh
Rating: 2.5 Stars (out of 5)