I'd listened to Garrin Benfields Nowhere Is Brighter a few times before bothering to read the credits. It's only Benfields second disc, and its on an indie label to boot, but hes managed to gather together an impressive roster of musicians. Drummer Ricky Fataar and bassist James Hutchinson are from Bonnie Raitts band, and other musicians here include Charles Gillingham of Counting Crows and Boz Scaggs. In addition to being played well, the music on Nowhere Is Brighter sounds great -- it was mastered by the formidable Bernie Grundman.
Benfield writes solidly crafted songs reminiscent of the singer/songwriter confessional vein of the 70s, but for the most part he avoids sounding dated. His subtle, complex songs seem to grow deeper each time you hear them.
Benfield is a triple threat. In addition to being a skilled songwriter, hes an appealing, natural vocalist, and an exceptional guitarist. Its Benfields guitar playing that initially pulls you into the disc. Hes so technically proficient, the disc is worth hearing for his guitar playing alone. He has a strongly rhythmic approach and a fairly heavy plectrum attack, but his style feels relaxed and loose. Throughout the disc, he tosses off complicated fills on both electric and acoustic guitar with seemingly little effort -- its easy to miss how good a player he is.
Benfield uses an acoustic guitar as the foundation for most of the songs, but hes as effective on the rockers as he is on the quieter tunes. Since he has such broad knowledge of the fingerboard and such confident technical skill, hes able to bring a lot of different styles and approaches to his songwriting. He favors open string chords and alternate tunings, so his acoustic guitar rings out throughout the disc. His knowledge of chords allows him to shift melodies and harmonies in ways that are often unexpected but never jarring.
Although Benfield can summon the edge he needs to sing the slightly tougher songs on the disc, such as "Hungry Ghost" or "Brother," he usually sings in an easy, unforced voice. Hes never mawkish, but on the few tunes that seem most deeply rooted in the '70s, he conveys too strong an impression of that eras sensitivity. "Leg" and the title tune, to cite just two examples, sound too much like Dan Fogelberg. Those two tracks and a couple of others could easily have been dropped. The disc is too long at 68 minutes and weeding out the weaker material would have kept things moving along.
Despite these reservations, there are enough good tunes on Nowhere Is Brighter to recommend it. Playing with Benfield seems to have raised the stakes for the players. Fataar and Hitchinson are especially inspired -- the disc gave me the impression that Raitt keeps too tight a reign on them. Michael Rodriguez, who co-produced the disc and records on the same label, plays keyboards on most of the tracks and he matches Benfield in his ability to spark a song with an unobtrusive fill. Even the weak tunes have enough going on in them to keep the musicians sharp.
Some judicious editing would have made this good disc a lot stronger. Next time around, Benfield and his producer should trim the fat. You can use the programming function on your CD player to do the same.
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