Rumpus Sound Takes: Baritone Depth

By


Sean Rowe
Magic
(Collar City)

It might be hard to get past the first song on Sean Rowe’s Magic it if you have a real aversion to guitar-based songs written in what is commonly referred to as “adult contemporary” style: competent music writing and playing, extending just to the edge of what is comfortable. In other words, it’s as risky as it can get without having to be risky. And while the music itself on Magic doesn’t transcend any musical boundaries, Rowe’s voice adds a complexity and uniqueness that distinguish the album.

Rowe sings in the deepest register I’ve ever heard for this genre of music. The only other singer I can think to compare Rowe to is Barry White, but the two employ such different styles of singing in such different musical contexts that any comparison would be unjust. Rowe’s voice is such a surprise that on first listen it can be off-putting to unprepared listeners. But this combination of deep baritone vocals and sentimental guitar rock creates the dark overtones that shadow this record.

That first song, “Surprise,” is the only certifiable love song on the record. Look up videos of Sean Rowe on YouTube, and you’ll find a bride and groom dancing their first dance to it. As Rowe sings “I thought love was just a strip mall baby, you are a surprise” I can’t help but be impressed by this cynicism cum romance. Rowe takes us swiftly through the notion that love is just a bland suburban oasis full of Subways and nail salons to our arrival at genuine sentiment. And while the rest of the record explores dynamic experiences beyond the initial relief of love, this song acts as an anchor for everything that follows.

Sean Rowe’s Magic is a place where “life is like a liquid,” where “hearts [are] waiting like rifles,” where “the sound of thunder covers up [your] eyes,” where “[you] listen hard for the voice of god and [you] don’t hear nothing at all,” where you begrudgingly ask questions like, “What if I was wrong? What if the world was right?” The tenor of Rowe’s vocals helps express a musical depth that could easily be passed over with a more conventional delivery. How else could one tolerate lyrics like “When your heart is broke, when your eyes are wet” sung over and over, or “I am man” sung with the utmost naked sincerity? Such clichéd phrasing and earnest observation usually repel me, but Rowe’s delivery wins me over. The songs on Magic present lyrical and emotional clichés as though there couldn’t have been a better way to say any of it.

 


Jackie Clark is author of Aphoria (Brooklyn Arts Press). She is the series editor of Poets off Poetry and Song of the Week for Coldfront Magazine and is the recipient of a 2012 New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from Delirious Hem, Denver Quarterly, and Yoga City. Jackie lives in Jersey City and can be found online at nohelpforthat.com. More from this author →