Swiftly, Surely

Nathan Xander

Aw...rats, 2007


REVIEW BY: Paul King


There’s something curiously engaging and really rather special abut the music on singer-songwriter Nathan Xander’s debut release Swiftly, Surely. Stylistically the songs on this seven-track mini-album are all steeped in the American folk and country traditions but there’s an eerie starkness to the arrangements and a compelling honesty in Nathan’s vocal delivery that lends weight to the world-weary melancholy pervading his music. This is important because the first requirement of any successful artist is the ability to create music that connects emotionally with an audience, and this Nathan does effortlessly.

Hailing from Chicago, the 25-year-old Xander was first inspired to write his own material at the age of 21 by the music of Neil Young, Kris Kristofferson and Gram Parsons amongst others. A proficient player of harmonica, piano and guitar, the lineage of Xander’s music is fairly easy to trace from Hank Williams through to Neil Young and on into the modern era with the likes of Willy Mason. Of all the musical signposts present in his material however, it’s perhaps the influence of Neil Young that looms largest over Nathan’s work. His sparse, acoustic compositions with their thought-provoking and emotionally vulnerable lyrics echo the best of Young’s my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 After The Gold Rush-era music.

Swiftly, Surely opens with the enchanting “Brilliant Before My Eyes,” a track that serves to highlight Xander’s strong, precise finger-picking guitar style to tremendous effect. The song glides along with a beguiling guitar melody, eloquent lyrics and a vocal performance that sounds bravely resigned to the sad inevitability of the future.

The album’s underlying air of eerie melancholy is further heightened by the final track “Darkness,” which paints a mournful picture of the artist as the victim of his own tortured perspective. It also contains some great lyrics, like the vivid imagery of “Straw bones, dirty hands and a crooked nose / Feel I’m sitting out there, someplace where nobody ever goes” and the troubled resignation of the song’s key line “And darkness becomes a fixture in everybody’s life, I suppose.”

Also worthy of mention is “Lighthouse,” which recalls some of Steve Earle’s more introspective moments and “Always Never Home,” which begins with a wordless vocal moan, sung over an acoustic guitar backing that speaks volumes without ever actually saying a word. This intro reminds me of Blind Willie Johnson’s wordless, 1920s ode to melancholy “Dark Was The Night,” since it produces much the same heart-wrenching effect. It’s just a pity that it doesn’t last a bit longer; I could happily listen to a whole track like this.

Although the majority of the material on Swiftly, Surely is decidedly strong, not every track hits the mark in terms of quality. “America As Egypt” comes off as a slightly unconvincing misfire, bogged down in its own sobriety and self-righteousness, while “Eminent Domain” lacks a truly memorable vocal melody. Still, there’s more than enough good quality material on this mini-album to bode well for future releases. Xander’s nothing if not prolific and a cursory listen to the new material on his MySpace page provides ample proof that the best is still very much yet to come from this singer-songwriter.

With its rootsy, homespun aesthetic and lyrical honesty, this record will certainly appeal to fans of Willy Mason, Neil Young, Elliot Smith and Wildflowers-era Tom Petty. At the time of writing, Swiftly, Surely is available from online retailers like CDBaby or as a download from iTunes, but from the quality evident in the best material here, a full international distribution deal for this talented newcomer surely can’t be far away.

Rating: B

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© 2008 Paul King and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Aw...rats, and is used for informational purposes only.