You’d have to be a dog-kicking drunk to dislike Tim O’Brien, and while I used to trip over the late Chow when he’d sprawl into the wrong corner of darkness, it was never intentional. O’Brien’s credentials, stumbling quickly to the point, are impeccable. Sixteen years with crossover bluegrass band Hot Rize, substantial songwriting credits (including Kathy Mattea’s “Walk the Way The Wind Blows”), a Grammy nomination for last year’s Dylan-gone-bluegrass Red on Blonde, and a Ph.D.
What permeates When No One’s Around, however — and despite the life of quiet desperation suggested by the title — is an overriding sense of decency. A nice guy who can flat play. And write, witness the opening “Kick Me When I’m Down” and “How Come I Ain’t Dead” (“If I can’t live without her/How come I ain’t dead?”). Those are both jilted lover songs (and co-writes), and they’ll be stunning covers in the hands of a singer able to invest desperation in the words. O’Brien’s voice belongs to such a genuinely nice guy (I don’t know him, it’s the quality of his vocals being described here) that it’s hard to imagine anyone hurting him that much.
That’s both the problem and the pleasure of O’Brien’s solo outings. He’s a first-rate adult contemporary figure waiting to break, able to toss a tenor saxophone into the mix of “When You Come Back Down” (co-written with Danny O’Keefe) and come out with a well-educated kind of very adult music. Bluegrass, the tradition from which he emerges, is not typically so well-mannered. O’Brien — lucky him — brings none of that discernible pain and privation to the microphone.
And so he writes comforting, comfortable songs; indeed, the closing “When There’s No One Around” sounds like nothing so much as an invitation to make a splendid and enduring children’s record. Those of us still tripping through the darkness will take our pleasures elsewhere.