Gentle folk ballads performed in hushed voices by sensitive dudes with acoustic guitars have gotten kind of a bad rap since Zach Braff helped make Iron & Wine famous, and from a certain point of view, it’s easy to see why. I mean, there’s a reason people always cheer during the scene in Animal House when John Belushi smashes Stephen Bishop’s guitar, and it isn’t just because they thought Bishop deserved a little comeuppance after recording “On and On”; it’s because deep down in all of us, there’s a mean little fucker who suspects sensitive dudes with guitars are only trying to get laid.
Which, okay, isn’t so out of the ordinary — everyone is trying to get laid, except for maybe those weirdo Jonas Brothers — but it just seems a little more honest when those efforts are couched in some good old-fashioned lechery, a la Mick Jagger or Bret Michaels. Having badly performed “On and On” in concert, however, I can tell you that the degree of sensitivity expressed by guys like Stephen Bishop and Sam Beam isn’t as easy to attain as you might think, and just because you might have slept through a Joshua Radin record, that doesn’t mean you should dismiss the whole sensitive-dude genre out of hand.
Brad Senne’s Aerial Views is a case in point. Senne’s voice is as tenderly husky as they come, and his arrangements never get more muscular than some electric rhythm guitar and a gently wheezing harmonica, but this album never feels like more of the same; it’s just 42 minutes of really well-made, mid-to-low-tempo, acoustic-based folk rock. Senne doesn’t play with dynamics the way Damien Rice does, but whatever his songs might lack in range, they make up in focus — he doesn’t horse around with affectations like perpetually double-tracked vocals or trendy production gimmicks. His songs rest squarely on his voice, his melodies, and his lyrics — which is exactly the way it should be, but most guys can’t command your attention for an entire album without a little prestidigitation. Senne is up to the task.
And why? Well, it’s the songs, of course. They may sound, on the surface, an awful lot like the various Saddle Creek-ish artists who have streaked across the blogosphere in a trail of hype and facial hair over the last decade, but they boast a simple immediacy and honesty that you just don’t get from every Tom’s Harry Dick with a Takamine and thrift store glasses. Most of those guys sound like they wish they could be Nick Drake. Senne’s proximity to that crowd sounds accidental; on Aerial Views, he really just comes across like a guy who has a story to tell, and it’s one worth hearing, never mind the accidents of trends.