Paul Iwancio,
Open Heart Stories
(Open Heart, 2004)

The songs on Open Heart Stories, the first full-length CD by Paul Iwancio, the president and founder of the Baltimore Songwriters Association, will either turn off the cynic or make the idealist feel she has found music that speaks to her soul -- idealism and heartfelt stories about free spirits who have been wounded by life, love or society.

"The Revolution Begins" is catchy and hopeful, with a Lennonesque musical tic in the refrain that could be a homage. It works. But what does one do with a song that has the word "revolution" squat in the middle of it? Or lines like, "Break the ties of conformity, lead your own parade"?

The retro philosophizing in songs such as "Morning Glories," the third song on the album, is so sweet sometimes. The words sound almost precious: "Morning glories don't bloom where they're planted/They reach for the sky." Although it did make me roll my eyes, it has a heartfelt innocence and feels like a song someone might sing to comfort a child or a fellow-wayfarer.

The album is the work of six songwriters: Paul Iwancio, Jane Wellington-Beatty, John Seay, Nita Paul-Callihan, Sarah Pinsker and Kenny Trainor. Nita Paul-Callihan's "Perfect Enough for You" is witty and gentle, but some songs are wordy without being lyrical. Iwancio's "Thesaurus" feels workmanlike, for instance. The guitar is peppy, the singing voice good but it also feels a bit clunky. The clunkiness seems to come about from the desire to speak of all the sorrows and joys of the heart. The song "These Shoes" is an example of clunkiness and perhaps the all-too-easy metaphors running through some of these songs. It's hard to dislike words such as "If you looked in my closet you might be surprised by what you'd find/There's sneakers and sandals and slippers and some of a grand design." But it's also hard to really like them, also. After all, the song is kinda catchy and it's definitely heartfelt, but the extended metaphor seems cute and once again, precious.

Many of the songs have a moral, either at the end or in the refrain. While the love songs are open-hearted, more than a few seem to have an almost requisite touch of cynicism, sorrow or self-mythologizing. "Ballad of Inez," for instance, written by Jane Wellington-Beatty, tells the story of a woman with a fire that "burned inside her," who lives life for the "journey, it's one hell of a ride." The love song in the country-and-western track "Open Heart Story" seems to be more about the rest of the world than about the beloved: "Won't live with Catholic or Jewish guilt anymore." Or consider these lines from John Seay's "My Oasis": "She is my oasis in this desert of dreams."

Rather than seeming triumphant, the personas and narrators in these songs seem tired and their love songs seem to be written from a wayfarer on a sad journey to another traveler on life's road. They make good commentary on society, and while they aim at joy the passion seems clamped down, caged in somehow. Sweetness and appreciation is one thing, but I wanted to hear a love song where the beloved is actually the sole and joyful focus of the singer.

Listeners of this album will have to decide what to do with these honest slices of the musician's heart. They could identify with the song's narrators, cringe at the honesty/self-indulgence of the songwriters or sit back and listen. The hearer who feels the album is really speaking the truth about the listener's life might be encouraged and join the old soldiers in a large toast to optimism, individuality and positive change. But for me, an album that speaks so much about joy feels strangely beaten.

- Rambles
written by Carole McDonnell
published 30 April 2005

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