Open Hand

David Wilcox

What Are Records, 2009

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


I was both surprised and chagrined when I discovered this review – coming as it does in the Vault’s 14th year of existence – will be the first we’ve ever run of David Wilcox. 

Not that Wilcox is a household name; in fact, ever since his early-90s three-albums-and-out rollercoaster ride with A&M Records, he’s purposefully kept things low to the ground, establishing a stable career as an independent artist, playing a steady stream of solo dates and issuing 10 albums on indie labels like Koch, Vanguard, and in recent years, What Are Records. 

Gifted with a honey-warm baritone that draws inevitable comparisons to James Taylor, Wilcox puts his own idiosyncratic stamp on the folk-pop genre.  The feat that he has pulled off repeatedly over the years, and achieves again with Open Hand, is to balance insightful introspection with witty, wry observational humor.  He genuinely appreciates what strange and neurotic creatures human beings are, and that is his fodder, whether he’s contemplating the most effective way to live your life (as on the title track), or goofing on the disappointment of the present not turning out like 20-years-ago science fiction predicted (“Modern World”).

For this particular disc he traveled to Ferndale, California and recorded these songs more or less live in the studio with Dan Phelps producing and a rhythm section of Jon Evans (bass) and James McAlister (drums).  Wilcox’s extensive liner notes narrate the process: they only had a week to cut the album, so they rehearsed for three days and then started recording, trying to get every song within the first couple of takes if they could.  The end results are typically warm and engaging, but these without-a-net performances have an extra edge to them that Wilcox comments on in the liner notes, and he’s not kidding himself.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Dream Again” is a tough opener, a searching examination of the psyche of 2009 America, the boom and the bust, the exhilaration followed by the crash, and the darkness beyond.  It’s quiet and somber and steady and penetrating -- in other words, remarkable.  Next up, “Red Eye” finds Wilcox playing with your expectations by nailing a Jack Johnson campfire-philosopher vibe, complete with ocean-breeze groove.  It’s another insightful tune about how we rationalize negative or ambivalent memories into more tolerable ones, like taking out the red eye in Photoshop.

The powerful title track falls third and is followed by “How Long,” a very pretty, rather driving song that finds Wilcox asking the basic questions about life and not getting answers, but persisting in asking.  “Winter On The Shore” is where the serious tone of the first four tracks begins to turn a corner, a sleepy, bluesy reminiscence of a summer love that’s passed by, but still feels sweet in memory.  The tone and atmospherics are pitch-perfect for the subject matter.

From there, Wilcox switches it up steadily.  The sunny, wry “Modern World” flows into a pair of rather somber tracks (“Outside Door & “Vow Of Silence”) before we get to the brilliantly funny “Captain Wanker.”  Skewering the inner jerk lurking inside us all, Wilcox rails against road-ragers, line-cutters and miscellaneous other varieties of self-centered prickishness.  Even here, Wilcox finds the humanity inside the obnoxious but clearly tortured personality he’s sketching – “His pride will hide the side that no one knows.”

And then, he’s talking to Jesus.

No, really, the snarky “Captain Wanker” transitions straight into “Beyond Belief,” a wise and heartfelt conversation with Jesus about judgment and faith.  It’s a remarkable switchup, and it takes a special kind of artist to make it work.  It works. 

Closing things out, “Not From Here” finds Wilcox saluting a lover so wonderful he can’t believe she’s from this planet, and “River Run Dry” delivers a powerful message about seizing the moment and living life to its fullest: “I want to sweat through every pore running faster when it's hot / And catch up to who I can be, and drop the things I'm not / And be sure by the end I gave it all I've got.”

Wilcox is a remarkable guitarist -- he employs a range of unique tunings and works tones out of his acoustic I’ve never heard anyone else uncover – but it’s his singing style that really brings out the warmth and personality of his music.  He enunciates every word clearly and takes great care about the words and lines he chooses to emphasize.  The effect of this attention to detail is that Wilcox succeeds in pacing every song for maximum build and impact.

Open Hand is among Wilcox’s strongest latter-day offerings, an album full of winning, witty, insightful tunes by one of the most talented (and underappreciated) singer-songwriters of his generation.

Rating: A-

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© 2010 Jason Warburg 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 What Are Records, and is used for informational purposes only.