Joshua Novak is just the latest in a cavalcade of first-rate Colorado musicians that seem hell-bent on making the state the new Brooklyn. His dazzling and highly engaging 10-song debut Ephemeron is absolutely worth the time and money for anyone that is looking for no-frills, lo-fi singer-songwriter fare.
The album opens with "In the Dark," a wistful, sweeping and horn-driven pursuit that exudes a confidence and charisma that isn't often heard from a little-known singer-songwriter. On the heels of "In the Dark," comes "Informaniac," a sweetly affecting valentine that sways and snakes with both immediacy and intricacy. There's a slight bent towards Copeland but nothing that's too direct or blatant.
Novak is at his best when he's writing songs that are sincere, empathetic and utterly self-exposed and the best illustration of that is the gentle "Don't Make Me Come to LA." There's a bit of a woozy mumble in his timbre and that sense of defeatism makes the song that much more engaging. Novak has an ability to unravel tales that are both delicate and deft and the meandering "The Spiller" is proof of that.
Novak successfully vacillates between acoustic fare and synth-pop and his first real synth-pop composition "Breathing," rounds out Ephemeron's first half. Novak is dripping with major label swagger and nowhere is that more apparent than on this one. As he pleads, "How bad is it? How bad do you want it?," he hits at something that makes Ephemeron worth its weight. Musicians are at their best when they believe what they sing and can translate the sterile studio environment into something that is human, tender and most importantly impacting. "Breathing" is every bit that song.
Cinematic is a word thrown around far too often (and this writer is as guilty as anyone in overusing it) but the slow-moving and saturnine movements of "The Singing Forest," seem more than destined for some indie film in the very near future. Novak's voice is supple and soothing and "The Singing Forest" is arguably the best illustration of that. Equal parts woozy and intoxicating, "The Singing Forest" is the first of many moments in which Ephemeron feels larger than it really is. After all this is just a DIY singer-songwriter crafting an album on his own budget and his own terms, and nowhere in "The Singing Forest" does that feel possible. There's a bigness about it, a sense of transcendence and timelessness that stretches far beyond Novak's humble surroundings.
The synth-pop veneer returns in the form of "Runner," one of Ephemeron's most accessible and commercial efforts. Though it has its collective charms, there's just something about it that doesn't stack up against its predecessors. Whether its a lack of depth or emotion, "Runner" just doesn't seem to connect. Though calling it shallow is probably a disservice, the song itself is easily not his best.
While the Copeland reference is probably a bit of a stretch for die-hards, there's a bit of Marsh-like songwriting in the gorgeous "The Good Fight," an effective study in mood-pop that borrows on the effectiveness of both "The Singing Forest" and "Informaniac." Buried beneath layers of keys, Novak is once again emphatic and pleading as he cautions to a former lover, "Get on with your life," before yielding to a falsetto croon over the last eighty seconds.
And it is there that Novak makes his biggest impact. When he can tap into songs like this, the ceiling on his ascent seems almost limitless. Though the disc continues onward with "Ephemera I," and "Ephemera II," it for all intents and purposes ends with "The Good Fight." Anyone who has enjoyed any of the previous eight songs will find plenty to like about "Ephemera I," most especially Novak's falsetto, but sitting here in the number nine hole the song feels displaced, detached and almost ordinary. Its successor however, a celestial and winsome instrumental feels every bit the bookend it should be and is a fine conclusion to an album that is as much surprising as it is sterling.
While Novak is still a newcomer to much of the country, his current tour through the West should vault him beyond his relative obscurity. And even if it doesn't, Ephemeron is an album that needs to be heard to be realized. Sometimes one listen is all it takes to ensue the proverbial ball-rolling and subsequent Novak revolution. A decade ago, records like this were beloved, celebrated and remembered. The faint idea that Ephemeron will just be lost along the masses is difficult to bear. Alas, reviews like this can only do so much. The response from others is what determines Novak's future.