album reviews

The Damnwells
Air Stereo
Zoe (2006)
Ari Hest
The Break-In
Columbia/Red Ink (2007)

It would seem almost brazen to use the phrase "I've got you, babe" without some ironic nod to the legendary '60s hit. Brooklyn's Damnwells take that risk on the opening track to their sophomore LP, "Air Stereo." After kicking off "I've Got You" with an anguished yelp of "I've got doubts I can't even count," singer Alex Dezen delivers those nostalgia-charged words with such tenderness that there's no allusion to the Bonos in sight -- and he doesn't stop there.

He rotates other classic rock titles through the song, including Cheap Trick ("I Want You to Want Me") and Journey ("Don't Stop Believin' "), with such an affectionate delivery that he reveals an even more compelling story than his lyrics: his lighthearted yet adoring relationship with the song's subject. Dezen has that same effect on the rest of "Stereo," as his captivatingly melodic voice adds an edge of newness to a countrified rock sound that has so much potential to seem overdone. The light female harmonies that accompany him on "Golden Days" and the wispy strings and keyboards on "Graceless" give the Damnwells just enough edge to differentiate them from their alterna-rock peers.

Ari Hest is more reserved in his approach: His soft, supple voice gives every song the air of a loving serenade. Mitchell Froom's production on "The Break-In" adds much texture to Hest's music. The layered vocals on "When to Quit" add a persuasive resolve to the song's otherwise ordinary lyrics ("I don't want to break your heart"). His haunting falsetto turns the album's title track into a stunning lullaby, illustrating the strength of Hest's most powerful asset.

-- Catherine P. Lewis

.: Originally published: The Washington Post: 25 March 2007, Page WE11
.: Items mentioned above on Air Stereo (The Damnwells, 2006); The Break-In (Ari Hest, 2007).