Singer/songwriter/guitarist Bart Ryan has the usual blues influences, including Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert Collins. But on Starlight and Tall Tales, his fifth solo album, he shows off some powerful soul touches as well as a fair helping of 90s alternative rock, all of it anchored in place by a sweet voice and dramatic blues-based guitar-playing.
As a session guitarist, Ryan is often called upon to lift songs with lines that are interesting without detracting from the song. It’s a tough thing, brightening the spotlight without stealing it, but the skill serves Ryan well here, where he’s playing with different genres, not within songs, but over the course of the album. Ryan, who co-produced the record, focuses on the best arrangement for every tune, only introducing elements that musically move the track forward; he doesn’t throw horns on a song because he has some horn-players hanging out in the studio.
But when Ryan does take those horns out, it’s gorgeous. “I’d Be a Fool” sways soulfully, complete with background vocals and electric piano. But when the horns come into the song, it’s pure grandeur. Ryan’s voice is a compelling mix of rasp and melody, pretty despite its contours. On an old-school track like this, it makes Ryan sound much older than he is, in a charming way.
“Walk Away” is a 90s rock ballad, the song’s structure coming from gentle drums and an acoustic guitar strum. It’s a fine song that works well enough, until Ryan’s lap steel comes in, doubling the sing-song melody, somehow sounding like an entire string section, serving as an electrical current that’s suddenly charging an otherwise low-key song. It’s clever and new, but it also enhances the song. “The Healer” is almost the flip side of that, a simple song that relies on wild energy for its hook. It’s a straight-forward rock song that leeringly winks at glam, complete with backing vocals and a manic guitar solo. Ryan sounds like he’s having a blast on it and the joy spreads to the listener.
Ryan ends the album with “Desire,” an acoustic blues tune with the rock riffs of vintage MTV Unplugged, the gentleness of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” and a lyrical nod to Duran Duran with a character who’s “hungry as a wolf.” Close-out album solo performances like this are often fairly disposable, a last chance for the artist to show-off their skills without a band, or a way to sneak on a last-minute song with simple production. But “Desire” demonstrates Ryan’s ability to weave together disparate musical strands into a cohesive song, all by himself. Ryan’s an impressive guitarist and a strong singer, but Starlight and Tall Tales works because of his songwriting.
The Review: 9/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– I’d Be a Fool
– Walk Away
– The Healer
The Big Hit
– The Healer
Review by Steven Ovadia