Brooklinite Chris Garneau’s full-length debut Music for Tourists, took a year and a half to complete and was released in January by Absolutely Kosher. Piano laden and driven by his soft, tender voice, one is instantly overtaken by his fragility and vulnerability.
Song after song resounds with sparse melodies, that when paired with Garneau’s whispering vocals, seem fit for a dream world, his voice taking spectral flight into the air and wavering between a whisper and a breathy staccato. He is commonly compared to Sufjan Stevens and Regina Specktor while the influence of the record's producer, Duncan Sheik, is clear in its unabashed emotional honesty. The album draws the listener in with emotional narratives waxing from despair to what could be considered severely understated light heartedness covering topics such as self doubt, eventual death, and Hamburg Helper.
What first drew my attention to Garneau was the song “Relief,” which recalls a past relationship that unfortunately didn’t work out. The lyrics “I love the way you dance / we can work well out/ don't you miss your chance / the pain will all grow out” tugged at my heart strings and as he goes on to state “I will be the same / I'll be the same
goodnight” my mind couldn’t help but wander into memories of past loves I hadn’t thought of in years. The video, shown on his MySpace page is set at a diner full of lost souls and tyrannies and seems so dissolute that it almost made me want to write lost friends of mine a letter (or at least look up a few while logged on to the stalker friendly site).
The most buzz the album received was from the hidden track, a piano cover of Elliott Smith's "Between the Bars.” Some hate it for taking a favorite and changing it while others love its original spin. I am in the later group, finding that Chris stays faithful to the sparse style of Music for Tourists, making it a lovely way to enjoy a beautiful song in a new way.
However, this sparse style can get in the way when listening to the album as a whole. While alone each song stands as a beautiful creation that sparks emotion, when listened to together Music for Tourists, blends together with similar melodies and Garneau’s minimal vocal range allowing the listener's mind to stray from the things he is singing about to such mundane topics as what to eat for dinner.
For example, on “Black and Blue” Garneau almost induces tears when he evokes a Jeff Buckley tone singing “We hurt the same / the same black and blue / I want to catch my death of cold / cos i'm scared I'm growing old / don't return the love I give/ your still my favourite.” Yet this tear was held back as the emotional floodgates were put back up as the next track began in the same slow and sullen way and I was lulled into a numbness that left me thinking about the project I left unfinished at work.
I had the pleasure of seeing Garneau on Tuesday night at New York’s Mercury lounge and was hoping that his live performance would draw my focus a bit more. He was joined by three cellists and a drummer, yet most of the set featured only the piano’s slow melancholy. His band mates had bland expressions and it was hard to determine if they were pensive or just plain bored.
That isn’t to say that he isn’t wonderful live. His voice is just as ghostly and ethereal and his small stature and angelic good looks add to the delicate nature of his music. At times his voice did rise above a library appropriate level giving a glimpse of a remarkable talent just waiting to break through. It reminded me of camping: the moment when the fires flame starts and it is so small and so warm you stand there watching and wishing it to blaze into a monstrous bonfire. I almost wanted to shout “Sing Chris, sing like your playing a concert for the hard of hearing,” but I controlled myself out of respect for a singer who most certainly will mature into a great talent, and of course, anyone in the crowd who may suffer an auditory challenge.
My final conclusion: Like a good piece of cake, Music for Tourist is good on the first bite but leaves you feeling a bit queasy if you eat the whole thing. It’s a wonderful debut and a great album to listen to on shuffle. He shouldn’t be missed live either but expect to leave feeling a bit downtrodden with no solid explanation of why — whether it's because you want to take him home and make him sing loud or because those moments when he captured your attention made you crawl into the dustier corners of your mind.