The first two tracks on Jeremy Fisher's third album, "Goodbye Blue Monday," sound a lot like Paul Simon outtakes -- but in a good way. "Jolene" (not a Dolly Parton cover) recalls the melancholy of Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer," while "Scar That Never Heals" features the same jangly guitar, lively rhythm and wordy tenor as "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard."
It'll be tough for Fisher to shake the comparisons that his sweet voice, bouncy songs and affinity for harmonies are bound to bring, but a similar sound doesn't always mean a cheap imitation. Even as he sings about falling for the wrong women, Fisher remains upbeat and carefree on the infectiously catchy "Sula," admits his own destructive qualities on "Cigarette" and manages not to sound mopey on the post-breakup farewell of the title track. But perhaps the greatest testament to Fisher's originality is the album's final track: His soft, smooth voice strips a bumper-sticker slogan of its cliche on "Fall for Anything" (as in: If you don't stand for something, you will . . .). The song may be a bit too philosophical for Fisher's youth, but his lullaby-esque tone makes him sound less like a 20-something know-it-all and more like he's offering big-brotherly advice -- a refreshing display of self-awareness and humility from such a capable songwriter.
Jim Bianco too often sounds like a Tom Waits impersonator -- but with only about a tenth the necessary vocal gruffness -- on his latest, "Sing." One of the more egregious tracks, "I Got a Thing for You," could have been a seductive lounge song, but Bianco doesn't have enough vocal power or creative instrumentation to give it that edge.
Bianco seems to miss his mark more often than not: "Never Again" shows glimmers of the swing craze of the late 1990s but never quite embraces its exuberance; the faux-jazz of "Wrecking Ball" doesn't commit beyond a halfhearted horn solo; and "To Hell With the Devil" doesn't live up to either the humor or imprudence implied by its title.
Perhaps the true misstep is not Bianco's decision to play it safe, but rather his decision to emulate the wrong musician. The poetic description in "Painkiller" and the cautionary "Somebody's Gonna Get Hurt" could have been arranged as Marc Cohn-style love songs; instead, Bianco's eloquent lyrics are lost behind a musical style that doesn't quite fit.
-- Catherine P. Lewis