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CD review by Roger-Z (07/17/06)
Appeared in More Sugar, August 2006, P. 15A
Let me explain my modus operandi. I only review CDs I like. As my mother says, "If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all!" Sometimes, it takes a lot of work to find the positive! Not so with "Perfect Stranger" by The Geoff Hartwell Band.
I love this record! Although independently produced by guitar legend Matt Smith, it sounds like a big-budget, major label release -- and a country one at that. Hartwell earned a local reputation as a major shredder on both regular and slide guitar. But you wouldn't know it from listening to this CD. He builds most songs on his acoustic guitar. Like a Hostess cupcake, the icing consists of the tastiest and most subtle of guitar licks. Keyboardist Chris Burke provides the smoothe, creme filling. Bassist Rich Kelly and drummer J.J. Clarke serve as the rich, dark, chocolate cake. Together they create a deep and powerful undertow that reminds me of body surfing on a rough day at Montauk Point. One second, you control the wave. The next, a rip tide drags you inexorably out to sea.
I met Geoff and his soulmate, dancer Annie Doss, about three years ago at the jam he runs every Tuesday night at Jackson and Wheeler (www.JacksonAndWheeler.com) in Pleasantille, NY. They appear completely devoted to each other. So I wonder where Hartwell found the inspiration for all the sad, wistful, breakup songs on this CD. Maybe one day we'll sit down and really talk!
Whatever their origin, the lyrics speak directly from his pain. On "Song for Mary," he sings "Couldn't I just hold your head to my breast and watch your head rise with my breath? Maybe if I don't sigh too long or talk to loud. Maybe this time I can keep you here and maybe this time you'll stay." Sometimes the bitterness just erupts as in my favorite tune, the fiery, electric "Star." "I reread your letter today. Found it just lying there in an old stack of papers I've been too lazy to burn."
It's not just Hartwell's songwriting prowess that impresses. His distinctive tenor voice perfectly captures the angst of his material. He displays it most effectively in his bare-bones duet with Jenn Bloom on the only non-Hartwell penned tune on the record -- "The Last Thing On My Mind" by Tom Paxton. So simple, but so beautiful. Dig that crazy mandolin by Matt Smith.
I can hear the distinct murmuring of all you guitar aficionados in the background. Enough of this sensitive, singer-songwriter crap. What about the guitar! Ok, ok. On the opening track "Mirage," Hartwell creates fills that perfectly echo the vocals. His beautifully architected slide solo in the middle of "Where I Want to Be" climaxes to reveal the shredder within. On "Star," Hartwell eschews the standard acoustic guitar and instead lays down an electric arpeggiated riff that will rip your soul apart. When he unleashes his solo, the speed and ferocity cement his reputation.
Not only does the CD sleeve feature a photo of Hartwell in all his long haired, guitar-playing glory, it also prints out the song lyrics along with chords and capo positions. What next Mr. Hartwell -- tablature?
The Geoff Hartwell Band outperform expectations with their stunning debut record. I know Hartwell recorded and re-recorded endlessly. His perseverance and perfection pay exceptional dividends. Hey, major record labels. Get a clue. Pick up this CD, and give it the big-money promotional push it so heartily deserves.