Tom Bolton,
When I Cross the River
(independent, 2007)

Tom Bolton's music is not unlike Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau. Instead of being conspicuously specific, his lyrics provide a beautiful ambiguity to the statement that exceeds any contemporaneous limitations. This provides a multifaceted approach to each of his songs, opening the listeners to their own interpretations. And while it's not a brain-wrenching process, there is a delicate complexity in this approach that Bolton seems to do effortlessly.

On top of this flexible meaning in the musical and lyrical structures, Bolton also has a very pleasant voice. While some of Bolton's vocal work does sound studio mixed (echo chamber?), that handling only serves to accentuate his already/seemingly-natural quasi-ethereal vocal style. The title track "When I Cross the River" and "Hold the Sun" are the best examples to hear Bolton's vocal styling.

"Whose Army" is one of those songs where the ambiguous lyrics work so well with Bolton's almost-haunting voice. This song is a timeless, thought-provoking piece of sociopolitical commentary. The narrative in the song is about a person suffering from social injustice, yet that faceless, nameless person acts as a larger metaphor for anyone. Bolton's lyrics must be intentionally vague as to the narrative's location, culture, gender and experiences so it may apply to nearly any person in any location.

"Little Star" is one of the best tracks on the album. And oddly enough, while Bolton only sings five words for the entire song ("Little star, help me shine") in that lofty voice, the music composes and builds up these lyrics that there is no feeling of mundane repetition or chanting. Bolton's acoustic guitar sends out light airy notes that give this seemingly simple song a textured complicated feel.

In some songs, Bolton keeps things simple and entertaining. For instance, "Hey You, Yeah You" is an enjoyable trip down the songwriter's memory lane, in which he juggles concentration in school while stealing glances at a pretty girl. The bonus disc contains two versions of "Biscuits", a song about ... well, biscuits. (Apparently biscuits can create deep-rooted psychological yearnings as well as satisfy emotional needs.) "Sweet Days" is a simple instrumental strumming that tops off the album on a pleasant note (metaphorically and literally).

Tom Bolton's broad-scope attention to detail without getting mired in it really provides for a great musical experience. Bolton has created a group of songs that will satisfy the most careful attention as well as a casual ear. When I Cross the River is undoubtedly one of those repeat-listen albums that will provide meaningful enjoyment.

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
C. Nathan Coyle

13 June 2009

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