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March 10, 2008 | by  | in Music |
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Album review – Timothy Blackman, Modern Sprawl

Modern Sprawl, the second offering from Auckland minimalist folkie Timothy Blackman, is a rough acoustic gem. Soft and hushed, the songs here feel more like tentative confessions than statements, but therein lies its success. It’s not perfect, but that’s the idea.

Opener ‘Bermuda Triangle’ sets the scene with stripped-back deadened acoustic strumming that eventually becomes a fairly lively tune. Underpinned by a simplistic drumbeat, the song marches along for a short while before stopping as abruptly as it started. Blackman knows where he wants to get with his songs, and he doesn’t waste time getting there.

This minimal mix of gently strummed guitar and quiet, rudimentary drumming overlaid by Blackman’s strident voice is fairly representative of all six tracks here. Like Elliott Smith and his scores of imitators, Blackman appreciates the value of repetition and minimalism, using thin, fragile instrumentation to underpin his vocals. The title track is the standout example of this, a quietly strummed chord progression given weight by spare drumming that leaves plenty of room for his vocals to stretch themselves out.

As a whole, Modern Sprawl is by all means a decent achievement, a short, intimate ramble through the mind of an obviously talented songwriter. The songs here are well-crafted, and display an impressive lyrical focus, conveying a palpable sense of alienation and disillusionment from modern society without seeming totally resigned.

There is, however, one thing about it that detracts from the overall success of the songs; Blackman’s vocal delivery. Things sound fine when vocal melodies remain hushed and soft, as on the gorgeous ‘Trip to the Plain’ and closer ‘The Great Extinction’, but whenever Blackman attempts to build his voice larger and louder, he sounds slightly flat, as if his voice is straining beyond it’s limits. The most prominent example of this is ‘Snow and Ground’, where the line “I’m hiding in the snow/under the ground” is forced out over and over, and eventually becomes a chore for the listener. While slightly off-key vocals can often work well in giving an added sense of personality to songs (think Neutral Milk Hotel and the Flaming Lips), it is definitely a gamble for the musician.

Don’t let this deter you though; Modern Sprawl is still a beautiful artistic statement from a talented craftsman. Keep your eyes on this man.

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