Packed to the gunwales with Brill Building hooks and decorated with wafting pedal steel.
David Sheppard 2010-06-17
There’s an intrinsic danger in a musician acquiring public renown by association with a gimmick. In Pete Molinari’s case the attention-grabber involved the Kent-born, Maltese/Italian/Egyptian singer-songwriter being cast as the guinea pig act on author Will Hodgkinson’s Big Bertha label – an imprint launched so the urbane scribe could detail the travails of the would-be record mogul in his Guardian column.
To his credit, Molinari transcended the hype, gaining props from Ray Davies and Richard Hawley along the way and subsequently wriggling free of the fourth estate and basing himself in the USA – recording A Train Bound for Glory, his third album, in Nashville with producer Adam Landry. Obsessed with ‘golden age’ American music, Molinari is, dependent on your viewpoint, an ingenuous pop classicist or wilfully old fashioned, so firmly rooted in pre-Beatles rock’n’roll, pop, country and blues are his songs. His titles may augur ill; an unprepossessing roll call of the derivative (Streetcar Named Desire, the title-track) and the hackneyed (Since You’ve Been Gone, Heartbreak Avenue) but they embody the keening-voiced Molinari’s chosen milieu so perfectly that, in context, everything makes sense.
Packed to the gunwales with Brill Building hooks and decorated with wafting pedal steel, the album’s dozen essays unfurl in a procession of such instantly familiar tropes that listening inevitably becomes something of a ‘guess-the-blueprint’ exercise. Thus, (To Be Close to) Your Heart’s Desire is Roy Orbison’s Crying stripped of melodrama; Heartbreak Avenue the kind of innocuous, mid-tempo rocker that propped up many an Elvis movie (with vocal backup from the aged Jordanaires, to boot); and A Place I Know So Well is surely a Sonny Bono outtake. Only Minus Me goes off message, trawling the mid-70s for its ‘grand theft auteur’ of Bob Dylan’s You’re a Big Girl Now.
And yet… for all the carefully observed battlefield re-enactments, Molinari is perfectly capable of conjuring affecting originality. Closing track What a Day, What a Night, What a Girl is actually a quite sublime ballad, drenched in baroque strings and full of stirring, redemptive lyrics. It’s genuinely poignant and, crucially, sounds like no one other than Pete Molinari.