Mike Campbell,
Sad Eyes
(self-produced, 2000)

Alaskan singer-songwriter Mike Campbell has been blessed with a rich, powerful baritone -- a resonant voice that is virtually note-perfect. He clearly loves to sing, performing his own material with heart and conviction. In Sad Eyes, Campbell presents a solid collection of original work that showcases both his voice and his spirit.

Campbell takes a traditional approach to his music, writing simple melodies with straightforward lyrics that recall the Kingston Trio and the Rovers. The best songs on the album ("Sad Eyes," "Traveling Marilyn") have a sing-along quality that, while not particularly contemporary, are quite likeable. With fourteen songs, some are bound to be better than others, and at times Campbell lets his love of storytelling get the better of him. "Evil Freddy" and "Wilderness Letters" would benefit from choruses, and in general the album would probably be stronger if several tracks were edited out.

That said, I found the historical and regional content one of the most intriguing things about this album. The majority of songs here reflect the maritime culture of Alaska or tell the story of someone from its history. Although Sad Eyes might not reach a large or mainstream audience, it is likely to appeal to people in the immediate community, particularly if Campbell is an engaging live performer.

In fact, it would be wonderful to hear a live recording of Campbell, accompanying himself simply on the guitar. At times, I found the production on Sad Eyes to be an unnecessary distraction, particularly the programmed drums. Stu Schulman provides much of the backing instrumentation here, including drums, keyboard, pedal steel and electric sitar and he shares the producer credit with Campbell.

Deciding how complex the arrangements should be is admittedly a big challenge for most (if not all) independent singer-songwriters. If anything, Sad Eyes may have erred on the over-ambitious side, opting for full production when a simpler recording would do. For Campbell's next project, I hope he considers putting his wonderful voice even more squarely in the spotlight. In addition, it might be worth covering the material of other fine traditional writers -- such as the late Stan Rogers or the young folksinger Aengus Finnan -- to see how far this wonderful voice can go.

[ by Joy McKay ]
Rambles: 2 March 2002