Monday, November 9, 2009

Review: Will Stratton - No Wonder (* * * *)

It was all too easy to miss Will Stratton in 2007, as I found recently. I hadn't heard a thing about the guy before a couple weeks ago when I had the opportunity to listen to his superb sophomore effort - No Wonder. Being impressed, I tracked down his 07 debut - What the Night Said (which was - astonishingly - recorded just after his senior year in high school) - and then wondered why much more hadn't been said about this talented singer/songwriter over the past couple years. It's easy to name-drop just about everyone from Nick Drake to Elliott Smith when talking about Stratton, but while his finger-picked guitar lines are reminiscent at times of Drake's and his smooth voice a bit like a stronger, more confident version of Smith's, the comparisons are less in relation to Stratton's style than a compliment to his songwriting prowess. Despite his youth (barely 22 now), he is an excellent writer and musician that has just dropped his second notable album, one that shows an increase of maturity and depth over the course of 14 stylistically varied and emotionally intimate songs, further establishing his unique musical identity and gorgeous folk style.

In many ways, No Wonder follows the pattern set by Stratton's debut, comprised of mostly slow, thoughtful tunes that feature his guitar, piano, and voice with few distractions - though here, as on What the Night Said Stratton makes use of muted horns, sweeping strings, percussion, and the occasional burst of electric guitar to give additional life to his stories and enhance the emotional impact of his songs. Wistful opener "Who Will," the sparse title track, and the bittersweet "Your California Sky" sound much like the songwriter's early material though usually even stronger as he has definitely been refining his songwriting craft. But elsewhere he branches out into previously unexplored territory, getting into a sort of poppy garage rock on songs like the hopeful "You're a Real Thing," the moody "Nineteen" and the surprisingly (but still relatively) abrasive "If Only." The amount of variation is a little distracting, and there's no denying that the music is best when contemplative and quiet, but Stratton's reach rarely exceeds his grasp and these forays into more pop-oriented territory yield mostly impressive results. And with plenty of music on No Wonder, it's unlikely anyone will feel slighted by his need to push personal musical boundaries.

Lyrically, Stratton shows especial growth and maturation on this sophomore effort. Whether referencing J.D. Salinger character in "Franny Glass" or providing a strange and political spin on Robin Hood in "Robin & Marian," Stratton never settles for the typical or ordinary, and though he sometimes overdoes it a bit (on the religiously backwards "Judas, 1966" especially), the amount of spectacular songwriting on No Wonder is genuinely impressive. The clever and emotional depiction of a friend's funeral on "The Past Always Runs Faster," the love-sick narrative on "The Country Clear," and the sincerely sweet ode to his home state, "New Jersey," are just a few of the captivating moments on No Wonder, revealing a young man who doesn't necessarily sound wise beyond his years in every case, but who is able to so compellingly and honestly relate his ideas, fantasies and experiences that his music achieves a greater amount of personality than many artists ever manage to reach over the course of their musical career.

It'll be a shame if No Wonder flies under the radar to the degree of its predecessor, but I imagine it's only a matter of time until Will Stratton receives the amount of acclaim he's due even if it doesn't happen immediately. Really, he's just too good to be ignored for long and he's already showing the ambition necessary to improve with time. Enjoy a couple songs (highlights, in fact) from the new album below and get introduced to this talented young artist.

Who Will (MP3)

Your California Sky (Mp3)