JAMES VAN COOPER
Coming Home (jamesvancoopermusic.com/MGM)
MATT JOE GOW
Break, Rattle And Roll (Checked)
Voting for the ARIA Awards this week brought home the hardly surprising but still mildly sobering thought that while it’s one thing to know that a lot of merely average music gets released every year, it’s another thing to realise how much of the merely average is elevated to something special with nominations by an industry historically afraid of the different and the bold.
Merely average isn’t “bad” or unlistenable; it just doesn’t go further than it needs to, it is satisfied to be like the others (or maybe it just doesn’t know how to go further than the others); and it does its worst by deadening the senses so that we don’t expect better anyway.
As stupid an expression as “world’s best practice” is – as if, for a start, there isn’t plenty of very average everywhere, and a lot of that successful too - it’s still true that if you’re going to compete on the same ground as artists in much bigger markets you’ve got to bring something special that’s going to push you past those with local advantages.
Having a connection with your audience, or a voice, or a skill at an instrument, is vital, for sure. And having the great good fortune to own that one moment, that zeitgeist-aligning one song that can override distance/unfamiliarity and push you past the local favourites, is best of all.
But as the likes of Sheppard or Jet, to name but two examples, can show you, you have to build on that with writing or character or smarts that separates you in some way, otherwise your moment remains just a moment, not a career. That’s why, for all the mediocrity of his output, you have to give Keith Urban credit for having absolutely spot-on marketing in his songwriting choices to back his appealing character and sustain a career.
Matt Joe Gow and James Van Cooper are neither at Urban’s level of success nor his level of mediocrity. Each having come from reliably rock backgrounds, they are more pronounced in their country-ish roots, albeit the cross-genre Americana rather than the outright pop/rock Our Keith has favoured. And their marketing campaigns wouldn’t fund an afternoon tea run for the Urban office.
However, having recently made this argument with something right in the public consciousness like Amy Shark’s debut album, which is likely to fare very well at the ARIAs despite – or because - being merely average, not to mention the blokey country successes of people like Travis Collins (and warming up for the Hillsong-does-country of the effortlessly nice and pleasantly ordinary Morgan Evans) it’s unfair to just let these two albums slide by.
Matt Joe Gow, who has been around for a couple of decades, and James Van Cooper, for whom this is a debut album, are far from bad. They are no Sheppard.
They have voices which carry grit, but not so much you wonder if they’ve been living a tad too hard; they can play well and have musicians around them who can play well too, and don’t dominate; they have absorbed the mechanics and the formulas of this genre - they have definitely got the sound right.
Gow leans more to blues without leaving country rock, Van Cooper looks to southern soul without leaving country rock. Gow plays to older references (local and Californian 1970s); Van Cooper nods more to contemporary pushiness, but they probably cross paths around Ryan Adams. They can do ballads – they lean on their ballads really - they can push up the tempo without forcing it, and while Gow feels experienced, Van Cooper has about him that promise of a young showman.
If you heard any one of their songs on someone’s playlist, you’d not flick them. But lasting lyrically and musically both show a tendency to take the familiar and the hoary, to deploy a cliché where a slightly tweaked effort might bring a bit of themselves to that well worn phrase.
That doesn’t kill the songs; they’re solidly made, do what’s needed and are no chore at all to listen to. You will enjoy listening to these records and I hope you do give them a listen.
But if you’re anything like me you’ll be waiting for the songs to do more to live with you rather than pass the time with you. For now they don’t. It doesn’t hurt to ask for more, even if – especially if, actually – the ARIAs mean nothing to you.