Today’s plaintive acoustic singer-songwriter is faced with a difficult task: How do you make songs about love and longing fresh? Every minor chord and clever progression has been plundered since the days of the lutist and sonnet, every conceptual angle approached and re-recorded.
Limiting yourself to only acoustic guitar and vocals, like the Tuscon, AZ-based Ryanhood do largely on their new album, “Start Somewhere,” makes it that much more difficult. Fortunately, you don’t necessarily need to break ground to make great music—you only need to resonate.
After a rough year (racking up a $16,000 debt and getting bumped from “Ellen” certainly qualifies) and a longer hiatus, Ryanhood’s Ryan Green and Cameron Hood have returned with their fifth album, “Start Somewhere.” The aim was to make “the most beautiful, most honest music [they] can.”
If that mission statement doesn’t warm your heart, it’ll probably roll your eyes. The same could be said for “Start Somewhere” as a whole. While sonically clean (though basic, down to the singers’ identical timbres), the album suffers from the sort of heart-on-sleeve emotional transparency of a country record, where songs tell you what they’re about before you can so much as begin to wonder about them. This sort of straight-shooting songwriting is likable in an aw-shucks way, but it lacks substance and severely shortens the album’s shelf life.
Honest or not, many songs on the album pander to emotions. “Sickbed Symphony” presents a series of Hallmark-worthy music metaphors on life and love (“Make your lives a song / a simple symphony” “Find a sweetheart who can hit the notes you can’t”) made even gloppier by its frame story of a father imparting dying wisdom to his sons. In “Summer Rain,” the protagonist speaks vaguely about trials with a lover while “staring out in the summer rain.” It sounds inspired by rental-bin chick flicks rather than the messy nature of life, and hits the associated triggers for groans and thrown popcorn.
“How To Let It Go” is as nuanced as the album gets. Like a country song about losing track of your daughter in the mall or working hard, the song is rooted in everyday minutia. Plain-stated “jealousy” and “anxiety” and dwindling bank accounts loom. But it turns from the Kenny Chesney’s and Josh Thompson’s on its chorus, from simply enduring the drudgeries and pain of life to transcending them by through art. It’s a refreshing subversion of what you come to expect from these songs. After a year on the rocks, that’s ostensibly what “Start Somewhere” is to Ryanhood—their own creation of endurance against the odds— how they let it go. In the scheme of their story, that’s admirable. Outside, though, it’s hardly memorable.
Ryanhood play The Walnut Room in Denver on Jan 30. Tickets are available here.
Dylan Owens is Reverb’s all-purpose news blogger and album reviewer. You can read more from him in Relix magazine and the comment sections of WORLDSTARHIPHOP.