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Music Review: Christopher Denny – ‘If the Roses Don’t Kill Us’

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Christopher Denny - If the Roses Don't Kill UsThe first thing that strikes you about singer-songwriter Christopher Denny is his voice. An appealing tenor instrument with a jiggly vibrato, it evokes the Gilded Age and Al Jolson, Tiny Tim, and, in a different way, Oscar Brand.

But while Denny writes and sings with a light touch and brings a sense of humor to his work (case in point: the self-referential, even self-mocking opener “Happy Sad”), he’s got serious talent that he channels into interesting lyrical directions, as in the admiring-but-frustrated love song “God’s Height,” which may be my favorite, strung around a downward major scale that calls to mind Jethro Tull’s “Ring Out Solstice Bells.”

“I think of you as a diamond / One that ain’t yet been cut,” Denny sings in the decisive “Our Kind of Love,” another love song, but this one straightforward, soulful and Dylan-esque. He builds his deceptively simple phrasing and melodies on firm song structures and carnivalesque arrangements that sound like a fusion of traditional country music, Creedence Clearwater Revival, late Bob Dylan and The Waterboys – clean, atmospheric, naturalistic.

After the contemplative heartbreak of “Wings” – framed by more downward major scales, these couched in sadness – and the resigned, rather gloomy “Million Little Thoughts,” the album returns to triumphal mode with the jangly “Watch Me Shine,” whose simple Creedence-like melody contrasts with the un-Creedence-like lyrical optimism. Then the title track brings a bouncy New Orleans beat and horn section to a story of a restless woman (lover?): “If the roses don’t kill us, stickin’ around here will.”

“Love Is a Code Word” never explains the code, and at various point in the album the lyrics seem almost free-associative, yet one always has a sense there’s a code buried in there, if we could only crack it. Yet part of the pleasure of the album is in surrendering to the mysteries of the lyrics in their beds of flowery 1-4-5 chords.

On the other hand, there’s no mystery in the chorus of the gentle Resonator-guitar ballad “Ride On”:

“Ride on, ride on little darling / I want to see your grey hair shine like silver in the sun / Ride on, ride on long-time sweetheart / We done beat this damn horse to death / So please, ride on.” That’s just plain beautiful, and faintly evil at the same time.

By the time I get to the last couple of songs, I’ve begun to OD on Denny’s musical sensibility. In spite of the sonic variety – the heavy use of organ, the pedal steel, the slide guitar, the horns, the piano – I want to hear, I don’t know, some more minor chords, or maybe something else in 3/4 time. “Something’s got to change,” Denny himself sings in the closer, “Some Things”; “something’s got to give.”

Still, he know exactly what he’s doing as a songsmith, as the lyrics to the Pete Seeger-like “Happy Sad” – which is in 3/4 time – make clear. “This part is sad,” he sings, and with those words come one of the album’s few minor chords.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.