Richard Tyler Epperson – Hourglass
Record Label: Independent
Release Date: April 8, 2014
Next time you’re thinking about musicians and their career arcs, try to answer this question: how many artists that you listen to on a regular basis made what you find to be their best album the first time out the gate? Very often, it seems as if most music fans wish that their favorite artists would return to the style or thematic material of their first couple of albums. Nostalgia is the big, obvious reason for these desires. People want their favorite artists to always sound like they did the first time. The listener ties memories to the records that first allowed him or her to fall in love with a certain artist, and whenever that artist goes to release something in the future, the listener hopes that the new record will allow them to relive their memories of the earlier ones. Of course, artists have to follow their own wishes as well, which leads to musical evolution that takes them further and further away from the sound of their debut. Case in point is someone like John Mayer, who has changed course twice on his musical timeline so far, first adapting from a teen pop heartthrob to a blues rock guitar god, and then transitioning into a backwoods folk singer/songwriter. Most people have been extraordinarily happy with that shift, to the point that 2006’s Continuum would be most fans’ pick for Mayer’s best album. But in case you were yearning for a trip back to Mayer’s Room for Squares or Heavier Things era, Richard Tyler Epperson’s Hourglass might appeal.
Epperson seems like an artist born from a period about a decade ago when sensitive male pop singer/songwriters were all the rage. You had Mayer, with his first two albums. You had Jason Mraz, with his hilariously titled debut, Waiting For My Rocket To Come. You had Josh Kelley, who landed a few minor hits off his underrated debut, For The Ride Home. You had Jack Johnson, still slinging the same kind of surfer folk pop that he is now. You had the guys shooting to fill the boy band void, like Ryan Cabrera and Teddy Geiger. And you had a few left-of-the-mainstream guys who nonetheless managed to grab a bit of crossover success, like Ray Lamontagne with 2004’s Trouble. On Hourglass, Epperson is some sort of mix of all of the above, a fact that might have given him reasonable mainstream potential a decade ago, but which drops him thoroughly in the underground scene today. It’s a bit bizarre how much the construct of mainstream music has shifted in the past 10 years, but good songs are still good songs, and most of the tunes on Hourglass are just that: enjoyable, breezy folk pop tunes that don’t leave that much of an impression, but which are perfectly enjoyable whenever they're playing.
For most of its runtime, Hourglass seems content to bask in a chill mid-to-low tempo vein, from the groovy heartbeat synths of opener “I Know” (the album’s best track, and an enjoyable hybrid between Mraz’s “The Remedy” and Mayer’s “Something’s Missing) to pleasant acoustic strummers like “Hourglass” and “The Life (Fall On Me).” None of these songs are reinventing the wheel, of course, but they do what they do well. The same can be said later in the album for nice sappy love songs like “Where We Are” and “Waste.” On the whole, the record is a bit too long and one-note to be taken in all at once. It’s 14 tracks and goes on for just under an hour hour, with most of the songs earning the adjective of “nice,” but not a ton of them standing out from the crowd.
The songs that do break the general singer/songwriter mold – “Lights,” an exercise in off-putting musical ambience and distant, distorted vocal production and “Like Always,” a dull Dave Matthews Band imitation of sorts that’s derailed by an awful-sounding synthetic cello – are coincidentally the only tracks worth skipping. Chances are that the songs were Epperson’s big tries for experimental territory. However, since the singer/songwriter plays nearly every instrument on the record – including guitars, bass, and keyboards – the more successful experiments are the songs that come together and glow despite the fact that Epperson obviously recorded each musical track separately.
Case in point is “Beautiful Day,” a lovely Jack Johnson-esque acoustic ditty that could easily land a few television soundtrack slots with the right marketing. The same is probably true for a lot of other songs here, and this album is worth a purchase – despite the fact that I don’t think I’ll be listening to it a ton as a cohesive whole – if only because these songs work so well as standalone playlist entries. If we’re judging albums based on cohesion, that fact is probably a blow against Hourglass. But if we’re judging them by how good the songs are, then the fact that this one lends itself to being broken apart and reorganized into mixtapes shouldn’t be seen as a drawback. After all, most of the artists on Epperson’s RIYL used to make albums with the same playlist-ready charm.