John Calvin Abney “Safe Passage” (Black Mesa Records, 2019)
First impressions count, and the stylish but relaxed artistic photos on this album cover speak volumes before any songs are even heard. The first track ‘I Just Want to Feel Good’ does just what it says on the tin. Its bright and sparkly intro setting the scene for this ‘Maybe Happy’ album of ten original songs from Abney, which showcase his vast musical ability.
On the whole, this is a great album. The Sprinsteenesque harmonica and awesome beat in ‘When The Dark Winds Blow’ give it superb aplomb and make it a truly stand-out track. ‘Honest Liar’ with its moody, groovy feel has a fleeting hint of T-Rex then ‘Days of Disconnect’ bursts through on the front foot and could be The Monkees. Electric guitar and wonderfully layered harmony bringing nostalgia to this track in such a great way. The beautiful instrumentation and familiar quality of ‘Turn Again’ make it a big favourite.
One or two things get in the way of this album getting top marks though. While the use of the pedal-steel works a treat in ‘Backwards Spring’ it wouldn’t be missed in ‘Kind Days’; instead the track would be much better without it weighing it down a little. Similarly, ‘Typeface in Bold’ is too drum-heavy. It is quite a relief when there is a break from the domineering bass drum mid-track. Beauty is allowed to emerge, albeit briefly, before the booming sound of the “tired heart” returns to get you right in the chest during the outro.
Fortunately, the track which follows, ‘Soft Rain Afterall’ is a short but beautifully bright piano-led instrumental which leads us nicely into the refreshing feel of the final track.
The album title is not one of the track titles, but perhaps a more in-depth reference to the personal journey Abney has been on with this album. His clever use of nostalgia and melancholy gently demonstrating happiness and contentment within himself, culminating in the tentative disclosure that Abney is ‘Maybe Happy‘.