RECORDINGS : Quick Spins

RECORDINGS : Quick Spins

Phil Vassar, sounding sweet and soulful in his heartland dispatches.
Phil Vassar, sounding sweet and soulful in his heartland dispatches. (By Jim Wright)
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Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Phil Vassar

Singer-songwriter-pianist Phil Vassar, who grew up in Lynchburg, Va., has been kicking around Nashville for a dozen years, writing country smashes for other artists (Jo Dee Messina, Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson) while staking out his own semi-successful solo career. But on his fourth album, Vassar, 43, sounds decidedly Midwestern, crafting a collection of unfussy heartland rock whose sound owes more to Bob Seger and John Mellencamp than to any denizens of Music Row.

Some of the tropes are straight out of the Seger-Mellencamp playbook, too. In album opener "This Is My Life," for instance, Vassar plays a frustrated American Everyman, singing: "Sticking it to the middle class/Well they can kiss my price of gas."

In the title track, Vassar (who had a hand in writing 10 of the album's 12 songs) turns a clever phrase about financial struggle: "My little girl needed braces, man, and it cost a couple thousand bucks/She's got a beautiful smile, but it'll be a while/Or my new-used pickup truck." Wistful if cliched rocker "My Chevrolet" is a flashback to better times.

There are love songs, too -- or, more accurately, songs about broken relationships, a nod to Vassar's divorce filing last year. "We never miss a cue, but it's a passionless walk-through," he sings in the up-tempo rocker, "Around Here Somewhere." In "I Would," over a swirl of fiddles, steel guitar and piano, he wishes aloud for a do-over. "Let Me Love You Tonight" is a bereft, pleading ballad.

"It's Only Love" is a standout that matches Beach Boys harmonizing with a chord progression from the old Motown hit "You're All I Need to Get By" as Vassar amusingly and unsuccessfully tries to sing himself out of his funk.

Still, he can sound sweet when he wants to, as on "Love Is a Beautiful Thing," a soulful wedding ballad written by Nashville heavyweights Craig Wiseman and Jeffrey Steele. A little bit country, a little bit rock-and-roll, it's already a big hit -- suggesting that in country music, the sound matters less than the song itself.

-- J. Freedom du Lac

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Love Is a Beautiful Thing," "It's Only Love"

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