CD Review of Songs from the Middle of the World by Chris Trapper
Recommended if you like
The Push Stars, Matt Nathanson,
Billy Pilgrim
Label
Starlit
Chris Trapper:
Songs from the
Middle of the World

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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I
n 1999, the Push Stars were teetering on the verge of Next Big Thingdom – they had a perfectly radio-ready cut, “Everything Shines,” on the soundtrack to “There’s Something About Mary,” they had an easily marketable sound and look, and they were seemingly a top priority for their label, Capitol Records. Unfortunately, none of this kept the band’s major-label debut, After the Party, from sliding straight into the cutout bins; in two years’ time, the Push Stars were a self-made indie act, making their bread and butter on incessant touring and the odd film or television placement. It’s a business model that, nine times out of 10, won’t make you rich – but it’ll keep you afloat, and now that the Push Stars are on what looks like permanent hiatus, it’s a model that the band’s frontman, Chris Trapper, is continuing to follow.

You most likely haven’t ever heard of Trapper, but it isn’t for lack of effort on his part; counting Push Stars records, the just-released Songs from the Middle of the World is his seventh studio album in the last nine years. Even for a performer who doesn’t stand a good chance of going broke on every CD release, that’s a pretty impressive clip – and considering Trapper probably spends a healthy chunk of each year on the road, it suggests an all-consuming dedication to the music, not to mention mind-boggling prolificacy.

Here’s the thing about songs, though: Quality is infinitely preferable to quantity. There’s a famous anecdote periodically related by Billy Joel, in which he recounts a conversation with Stevie Wonder regarding Wonder’s song-a-day writing habit – including Joel’s contention that anyone who writes that many songs has to be writing a bunch of bad ones in the bargain. For an artist like Chris Trapper, whose albums tend to follow an easily identifiable songwriting pattern, the risks of returning so frequently to the well are unusually high – and with his last outing, 2006’s Hey, You, he seemed to be in danger of succumbing to rote repetition.

It doesn’t plow any new ground, but Songs from the Middle of the World does present Trapper in a more flattering light than Hey, You, if only because it plays so nakedly to his strengths. As a songwriter, Trapper mostly operates at two speeds – gently plaintive and tongue-in-cheek funny – and since it’s easier to tell a good tale of woe than it is to really make people laugh, he’s much more likable when doing the former. Unlike other recent efforts, Middle of the World doesn’t strain for humor, settling instead for a long, heartfelt look at the sad sacks and small-town dreamers with whom Trapper has always closely identified.

Does it have its problems? Sure. If you’ve been a fan for any length of time, these songs are going to feel awfully familiar – pleasantly familiar, but still nothing you haven’t heard from him before. It all goes down smoothly – especially for an album that’s 17 tracks and nearly an hour long – but nothing here tops great Trapper ballads like “Small Town Geek” or “Last Night’s Dream.”

On the other hand, this is less of a “real” album than it is a collection of spare demos that Trapper has left off other releases, and as an odds & sods collection, it’s a wonderfully cohesive set of songs. Even if he only does a few things, he does them well, and his protagonists are so easy to identify with that it’s hard to find fault with him for standing by them so resolutely. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more disarmingly personal, charmingly low-key album this year.

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