A rough and ready rock band or rapper can usually handle a negative record review. They don’t give a shit. But it’s hard to bag on an earnest, confessional coffee shop troubadour like Justin McMahon. The whole point of music like this is to be open and honest and sensitive. He does give a shit. And these songs seem like they were written by a nice, likable guy.
But I just don’t care.
I’ve tried to care, but these songs just aren’t convincing me.
McMahon is part of the same burgeoning local singer-songwriter scene that produced The Novelists’ Backstory and Tyler Stafford’s On a String, two recent records I liked more than I expected. McMahon has a pleasant voice, an unpretentious songwriting perspective, and an ability to turn a decent phrase. But nothing grabs the ear. It might be an album that needs more time and repeated listens—the best records usually take a few spins to click—but I’ve listened to it four times, and it hasn’t happened yet.
The melodies are routine, and the instrumentation sounds like studio pros backing songs written for an acoustic guitar rather than a road-tested band. The arrangements are incredibly polite, everything sounds quiet and safe, partly by design, I’m sure, to give some intimacy to McMahon’s voice, but some instrumental risks would add some much needed dynamism to these songs.
Occasional lyrics pop out as above average, like in “Blue Bathrobe,” when he sings, “But we were doomed from the beginning”—long pause—“When I slept with that other girl.” And decent lyrics in an inoffensive setting might be enough for some people, but I’d prefer to hear McMahon collaborate with a wild melodicist, a rude instrumentalist or an insane producer—someone to give these round songs some edge.