First impressions of Joseph Arthur, a stoic singer-songwriter from Gotham via Akron, are almost guaranteed to be wrong.
Take just his three latest points of reference as he prepares for the release of his first album for Virgin Records. There’s the Grammy nomination he received this year for his artwork on the cover of his album for Peter Gabriel’s Real World, a label that doesn’t release anything without an exotic, or at least foreign, air. Sorry, he’s an American steeped in folk rock traditions.
Take the first song off his album “Come to Where I’m From” and there’s a sense that this slightly derivative tunesmith will soon be taking work away from the GooGoo Dolls the next time they submit a song for romantic drama soundtrack.
It’s hardly the whole picture of who he is. And then there’s the first song of his set Tuesday, a throwback to the days of Phil Ochs: four basic chords and a societal indictment in the lyric, “This ain’t my revolution.” No, Arthur’s not a Stateside version of Billy Bragg.
The beauty for Arthur, and the burden for Virgin, is that this semi-sullen singer-songwriter has some catchy moments on his album and, whenever he keeps it unadorned, can be a striking presence in person. There’s definitely a sense that just about everything he does has been heard and seen before, from his look (he could be Noel and Liam Gallagher’s brother) and speech pattern (comedian Steven Wright) to his melodies (Tims Buckley and Hardin, Kurt Cobain) and use of electronics (Beck).
But he has a solid class of influences, and there are times when he puts them to good use. When he goes a bit astray, as he did when he electronically looped a rhythm set by banging on the top of his drawings-covered semi-acoustic guitar, his music suffers dramatically and there’s an overwhelming sense that the audience slips away in a hurry. Simplicity could work wonders for him.