Mark Geary | Opium (sonaBlast!)

cd_geary.jpgIf Opium‘s first half is a promising, yet ultimately mixed bag, its second half shows off Geary‘s deft songwriting skill.







Puzzlingly, Opium presents some of its least distinguished music right at the start. The immediate impact of songs such as album opener "Cold Little Fire" and "Angel" is astonishingly minimal; they’re the types of competent yet kind of boring songs that could’ve been pumped out by any coffeeshop singer-songwriter. If presented with these songs in a vacuum, they wouldn’t necessarily make me want to rush out and hear more of what Mark Geary has to offer. Thankfully, Geary quickly atones by offering up "Not on Your Life," an upbeat pop song reminiscent of Josh Rouse’s early work, as well as "Facing the Fall" a loping yet expansive slow-burner that deserves to be mentioned alongside masters of that genre such as the Kings of Convenience.

If Opium‘s first half is a promising, yet ultimately mixed bag, its second half shows off Geary‘s deft songwriting skill. At this point, nearly every track is an album highlight. "Maid of Gold" and "Always" use faint strings and well-placed piano to effortlessly evoke the hushed, fragile beauty of Nick Drake. "Tuesday" is a relaxed, shuffling rocker that bursts with melody and vocal harmony, the sort of tune that would be incapable of merely blending into a radio station’s background. The pleading "The King of Swords" might be the record’s best track, surrounding the listener with George Harrison guitar licks, a passionate vocal melody and Geary’s affecting, yet not overwhelming, brogue. "Wake Up" closes the album on a markedly different note than it was opened. The breezy, circular acoustic guitar figures are effortless, as are Geary’s knowing, earthy vocals. It’s the honest work of a confident craftsman.

Another noteworthy aspect of Opium is the excellent use of supporting instrumentation: Analogue keyboards, clarinets, female backing vocals and the light touch of violin all go miles in dressing up what could have been structurally sound yet same-y, tough-to-crack acoustic songs. Additionally, producer Karl Odlum does a masterful job in infusing these quiet, sparse tunes with a stark but powerful presence. He skillfully allows the few more upbeat numbers the chance to stand out and serve as contrast without destroying the album’s mostly reflective, sober tone.

While Geary initially evokes little more than a bargain-bin, somewhat more subdued David Gray, he quickly proves himself to be a highly capable songwriter, big on slowly building, melodic twists. His songs distinguish themselves with a potent yet never desperate melancholy. Opium is a subtle album, one that takes time to get to know but soon reveals a sad, yet ultimately hopeful soul. B+ | Mike Rengel

RIYL: Kings of Convenience, Nick Drake, Josh Rouse, David Gray

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