CD Review of Watching Waiting by Todd Carey

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Watching Waiting
starstarstarno starno star Label: Inspiration Factory
Released: 2007
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Only bitter old fogeys remember it now, but there actually was a time – not too long ago, actually – when gathering actual, recorded evidence of your musical prowess took serious work. Bands had to scrimp, scrabble, and save to come up with enough money to spend a few precious days in a recording studio. The sessions were typically rushed, and actual engineering and/or mastering was totally out of the question, but at the end of the whole thing, the participants were the proud owners of indie music’s Holy Grail: the demo tape.

By the turn of the century, evolutions in recording technology had advanced to the point that anyone with a few grand to spend, and free nights and/or weekends, could glue some egg-crate foam to his garage walls and – in theory, anyway – be able to crank out recordings every bit as polished as anything from a “real” recording studio.

These days, of course, anyone above the poverty level can release a professional-sounding CD, set up distribution through CD Baby, and be selling songs on iTunes in less time than it takes to make a baby; even keeping track of the stuff that’s independently released in any given week is enough to drive a person crazy. As it has become easier for independent artists to record and release music, in other words, it’s become more difficult to get it noticed. Technology giveth, technology taketh away.

Into this crowded field steps Todd Carey, whose sophomore release, Watching Waiting, tumbles down Universal’s intricate distribution channels this week. Judge his new CD by its cover, and you’ll come away thinking the immaculately tousled Carey is Ryan Cabrera’s big brother, or maybe a moonlighting Abercrombie model – and while those first impressions might not be totally inaccurate, they’re far enough from the truth to keep things interesting.

Of primary interest to music geeks will be the behind-the-scenes crew Carey assembled for the album: Marshall Altman (Marc Broussard, Matt Nathanson) in the producer’s chair, Niko Bolas (Neil Young, Warren Zevon) recording, and Brian Malouf (Pearl Jam, Natasha Bedingfield) mixing. This album clearly came with an impressive budget attached, and it’s paid off – the ear-punishing compression that plagues so many pop records is nowhere to be found on Watching Waiting, vanquished by healthy bottom end and a beautifully intricate mix. If stars were awarded for an album’s sound, this one would get five.

They aren’t, of course; the song’s the thing, and that, unfortunately, is where Carey stumbles – and actually, even here, a limited caveat is necessary, which is this: if you think Ryan Cabrera is criminally underrated, and if you consider John Mayer’s music legitimately soulful, then you will probably absolutely love Todd Carey; in fact, you probably already do. That might sound like a backhanded compliment, if not an insult, but it isn’t – there’s a place for doe-eyed guy pop, there’s nothing wrong with it, and there’s nothing wrong with liking it.

It does, however, get rather formulaic after awhile, and Carey can’t escape this album’s 13 tracks without doing a bunch of stuff you’ve heard before (and recently). This wouldn’t be so disappointing if not for the fact that he’s actually got a lot of talent – his vocals are bright and pliant, his arrangements serve the songs, and he’s got a genuine way with a hook. In “Ain’t Got Love” and “Back off Baby,” the album’s got such a thoroughly winning one-two kickoff punch that it comes as an unexpectedly profound disappointment when things come crashing down, starting with the fourth song, the gratingly repetitive “Smile.” Carey redeems himself by album’s end – penultimate track “Goodbye to Another One” is sweetly memorable – but only after dragging the listener through a long, soggy middle.

If there had been any money left over for a decent A&R man after the production staff was hired, maybe he could have talked Carey into trimming a few songs off Watching Waiting; it wouldn’t have solved all the album’s problems, but it would certainly have helped. Regardless, there’s a lot of disposable income waiting to be spent on these songs, and Carey should have no problem tapping it. This likely won’t be the last we hear of him, in other words, and that’s a good thing.

~Jeff Giles