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Waxed - Record Review from Issue #15 May-June 1998

Robert Becker

To a Friend Unknown (China Grade)

Driving burned and pissed out of Arizona over the Plains is an acid test of a true road song, and was the making of some mighty good ones on this solo debut by Gin Blossoms piano man Robert Becker. His track record with bands can only improve; meanwhile, he’s showing a fine ear for studio talent and production finesse.

The Blossoms’ demise after Doug Hopkins’ self-inflicted one was followed by an Omaha sojourn which, incredibly for Becker, had the same ending. This record explores the miles since — from the tentative hope of finding a new friend, to the disbelief and despair of losing one.

The spaces in “#7″ hold the record’s darkest brooding, as if the sparse phrases must be dragged out against the grain. Throughout, a Moog drone gives the effect of a storm-building sky, while the spare, dynamic instrumentation depicts the desolate ground beneath. “Long Walk” is a contrastingly uptempo downer about hearing sirens all over the city; ironically, it’s the best driving song on the record. A background sound like the electronic cricket-hum of power lines stretching and sagging in the hot sun could as well be a whir of passing cars.

The track’s rolling pace is one of this record’s many suggestions of forward motion. Also upbeat, but distinctively hopeful, is the jangly “Vertigo”. Jackson Browne underscores the remoreseful “There You Go” with uncredited harmony vocals.

Spots of disarmingly quirky phrasing redeem Becker’s voice from pure pop a la Gordon Lightfoot. Its real strength and range shows only occasionally. Similarly, if less positively, rare rough spots in the lyrics beg for a subtler or more poetic image.

Becker’s piano fills are robust but tastefully applied, as is Mike Barile’s dobro and Kenneth Schalk’s five-string fretless bass. Mike Daly’s elegant lap steel distinguishes his growing reputation as an interpreter of poignancy and woeful sentiment; this record also introduces his considerable sensitivity with a guitar.

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Originally Featured in Issue #15 May-June 1998

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