If you first heard Eric Andersen’s new album, Plane Rides & Ocean Tides, at a blindfolded listening party, and somebody asked you, “What year do you think this came out?” You might make the reasonable guess, “1973.”
That’s the year of Billy Joel’s Piano Man and Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, records with which Plane Rides & Ocean Tides could be comfortably shelved. This isn’t to say that the songs on Andersen’s album sound dated or irrelevant, but rather that these piano-led singer-songwriter pop tunes have craftsmanship that’s all too rare in 2010. The music sounds slick and professional, but also organic and human. That’s an unusual combination. It’s clearly real musicians playing real instruments, but it also sounds like it was recorded in a real studio, not just on a computer in the basement of some dude the drummer knows.
Andersen, 23, is originally from Milwaukee and moved to Reno two years ago to ski for the University of Nevada, Reno ski team—but, as it often does, music became a priority over skiing and schooling. He has the relaxed, unshaven confidence of a young man who’s good at both music and sports. The fact that the music is piano and the sport is skiing only heightens this sense of effortless ability.
Plane Rides & Ocean Tides features top session musicians of both the Milwaukee and Reno scenes. The local boys include Eric Stangeland, Joel Ackerson and Tyler Stafford. The arrangements on the record draw colors from a wide palette, from sad-faced strings of “Last Call” to big classic rock guitars on “Crazy,” but always led by Andersen’s patient, mellifluous piano.
Andersen says the freedom to call on a variety of session players for vastly different arrangements and approaches for each song is one advantage of being a solo performer. There’s no limitation of trying to accommodate all four or five members of a band. When recording, he can tailor each track to what the song needs.
“For me, melody is huge,” says Andersen. “If there’s not a strong melody, it’s not interesting or memorable.”
He mentions how The Beatles, for example, wrote melodies that are so strong and memorable that they can be approached from any number of angles and still be recognizable. That’s why Beatles tunes get covered by everybody from chamber orchestras to barbershop quartets to heavy metal bands.
“I know everybody always says this, but I’m into a huge variety of music,” says Andersen. “I’d say the common ground is outstanding songwriting and production techniques that emphasize live instruments.”
In addition to Billy Joel and Elton John, a few other influences are noticeable in Andersen’s music. One is the light psychedelia of another 1973 record, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Another is contemporary singer-songwriter Ben Folds, whose wry humor and melodicism are also apparent in Andersen’s songwriting.
“Everybody assumes every song is about some girl that broke your heart,” says Andersen. The album’s title track opens with some nostalgic lyrics that could easily be about a failed romance: “God knows I tried my best, but I can’t find the line … but if you know that this is how it will end, please spare me.”
But, when pressed, Andersen admits that the lyrics are actually about ski racing.