Although Austin-based singer/songwriter’s bio lists the likes of The Pixies and The Smiths as influences (then again, who doesn’t these days?), the man’s songwriting and vocal style recalls another sad bastard, quite possibly that saddest of bastards: Mark Eitzel circa 60 Watt Silver Lining (a vastly underrated album, but that’s another story). In its finest moments, Bartell’s debut full-length Too Soon To Say recalls Eitzel’s languid, whiskey-soaked tales of poetic heartache and regret.
However, Bartell could learn to use a little restraint across the board. His voice isn’t as ragged or world-weary as Eitzel’s, but it sure sounds better when he lets it settle into similar territory — when it sounds like he’s just walked into the studio from some nondescript dive where he was nursing the same bottle since last Tuesday. When he tries to move outside that region and coax a little more range and “oomph” from his pipes on “Up For Air” or “Crashlanding,” it just doesn’t sound quite as natural or fitting.
The same holds true for the musical arrangements. The occasional flourish is a treat for the ears, such as “Another New Year“ ‘s theremin-like whistles or the exotic rhythms swaying to and fro on “Stars Burn Out (I).” But the album’s lush arrangements, which incorporate everything from strings to flugelhorn to glockenspiel, do occasionally get too top-heavy and bombastic for a particular song’s good.
This leads to moments such as “Almost Perfect.” Here, Hartell moves just a little too close to power balladry, and he coaxes every ounce of emotion he has to sing “Oh, why won’t you go?/Why won’t you say ‘it’s all too much for me’?” over the requisite wailing guitars, thrashing drums, and soaring strings. Truth be told, the song’s climax does sound great in a Spiritualized sort of way, and comes close to elevating the song to whatever lofty, emotional plateau it’s so earnestly seeking. However, I’m just not sure that this is the time or place for it — or that Bartell is the right artist to strive for such moments.
Rather, the quieter parts of the album are what feel like the real Bartell. In light of “Harris Park,” the hushed opening minutes of “At Any Moment,” “Stars Burn Out (I), “Don’t Believe Everything,” or the evocative guitar/radio static interplay on “Breaking The News,” the album’s more overwrought trappings are seen for what they are; trappings attempting to pretty up songs that I’m not convinced need prettying up, and which only result in making the album about 4 songs and 20 minutes too long.
The simpler songs are no less catchy, intriguing, and effective, even though they’re stripped down to essentially Bartell’s voice, guitar, bass, and drums (with bits of pedal steel and organ drifting by here and there). Certainly nothing revolutionary, but they are much more capable of communicating the ordinary stories of ordinary folks caught in ordinary life and heartache, and much more affecting than the album’s bigger moments. It makes one wonder what more Bartell could accomplish with far less — a sparse studio apartment, a 4-track, and an acoustic guitar.