Graded on a Curve:
Chris Crofton,
Hello It’s Me

Rock musician, stand-up comedian, actor, comedic advice columnist: Nashville’s Chris Crofton wears many creative hats, but with Hello It’s Me he dives wholeheartedly into singer-songwriter pop with an emphasis on serious, complicated love songs. Crisply produced by Kevin Ratterman and with sharp instrumental assistance from like likes of Jim James and Scott Moore of My Morning Jacket and Matt Rowland from the bands of Bobby Bare Jr. and Caitlin Rose, the star of this bright and at-times surprising ten-song set is undeniably Crofton, and he’s delivered a pop-lover’s delight but with an undercurrent of subtle unusualness. It’s out on vinyl, compact disc, and digital June 22 through the Arrowhawk label.

Every record has a backstory, but Hello It’s Me’s is especially interesting. Much of it derives from the breadth of Chris Crofton’s pursuits, having kicked out heavy punkish rock in the Alcohol Stuntband, acted in the sitcom Still the King on the CMT Network, and Harmony Korine’s faux found-VHS mindfuck Trash Humpers, performed edgy stand-up all the way out in Los Angeles (running in the same circles as Bob Odenkirk and Neil Hamburger), and back home serving as the Advice King for the weekly Nashville Scene.

Much of this activity was fueled by booze, an unsurprising fact given the name of his band, but a few years ago Crofton made the decision to get sober, and while sticking with it he wrote and recorded a striking batch of tunes that register as an ode to the soft rock side of the classic singer-songwriter experience.

Along with a quickly discernable writing talent, the key to the album’s success is its seriousness. Hello It’s Me is not a tongue-in-cheek thing; Crofton is an open admirer of John Denver, Bread, and Gordon Lightfoot because to quote him, “the melodies are strong as shit.” It’s hard to argue with that. But if respect is vital, Crofton’s personality keeps this set from becoming an exercise in mere imitation or homage.

Instead, Arrowhawk offers similarities to Jonathan Richman and Big Star. Frankly, these comparisons didn’t strike me right away (and y’know, the best comparisons don’t), though with a few plays of the opening title-track, the lushness of Scott Moore’s strings did point to Third (e.g. “Stroke It Noel”). Nevertheless, Matt Rowland’s electric piano does place matters firmly in the soft rock zone.

Another winning element here is the general range. The laidback “UFO Hunters” reminds me of late ’70s-early ’80s country pop (it’s that fucking piano, which does get dangerously close to Jimmy Buffett) but with an off-center quality (perhaps a little like something heard on a ’70s private press rescued by Anthology Recordings) that never carries over into the outright cracked. Rather, it reminds me of Will Oldham embodying the mode of The Bellamy Brothers, and I dig it.

But with “It’s All My Fault,” Crofton returns to the record’s backbone, dishing lyrical nakedness that’s been out of fashion for a long time now. It’s also straight-up pop. Well, mostly straight-up, in that it’s also mildly reminiscent of young Richman waking one morning with the desire to be the next Gilbert O’Sullivan. Plus, Crofton’s voice, while sturdy, is unique enough (but once more, not “outsider”) to underline that this is not a standard pop thing. With this said, the song triggers thoughts of Harry Nilsson, which is interesting given Crofton’s sobriety.

This carries over into “Numbers Game” as the unadorned deep feeling gets complemented with sharper than average wordplay and maybe a nod to ’90s Lambchop if Kurt Wagner was as impacted by Todd Rundgren (cited as the inspiration for this album’s title) as Don Williams. It’s those aforementioned strings, which the uncommonly pretty “Love Letter” flaunts in abundance. It also has some cool backing vocals from Katie Toupin.

In terms of love songs, “Where Are You?” is searching and pleading (which fits with the record’s directness), but largely through the pop thrust, it avoids coming off as obnoxiously needy or lost. However, “Non-Conformist Blues” delivers just the right dose of early ’70s country-folkish singer-songwriter-ism (love the pedal steel) before jumping into the full-blown soft rock of “Everywhere You Should Be (Except for in Love).”

When the line “I heard you sat by the runway/at the fashion show/and you met the designer/and you powdered your nose” gets coupled with the unabashedly mersh ambience, I can’t help but think of Lou Reed circa ’79 attempting to stealthy kill Lester Bangs by recording a yacht rock album. This may seem gratuitous, but as others have pointed out, soft rock/yacht rock had a knack for making melancholy, self-pity, and sour grapes palatable in a way that say, indie rock largely does not.

But Crofton’s not done. Due largely to the keyboard foundation and Matt Myers’ searing guitar leads, but “Find Me in the Bar” jumps forward to a sorta proto-VH1 adult pop. And maybe it’s just the knowledge of the man’s background as represented in these lyrics, but the song’s anthemic qualities are fully earned and not a bit overwrought. Jeepers. After that, “Night for Lovers” scales back with a song of loneliness for the close.

Although it’s off-target to call Hello It’s Me a weird album, to borrow from a song title here, Chris Crofton has surely added to Nashville’s non-conformist tradition. From a platform of often unfashionable genres, it’s an unexpected treat for pop-loving ears.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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