Ted Garber is living proof that a positive attitude doesn’t always get you everything you want. Why? Because what he truly wants is to be a diverse singer-songwriter who has the capabilities of taking his band down as many musical roads as possible in a manner that proves he is a master of all trades.
Instead, on his latest release, “Live at Strathmore,” the Frederick native comes across as an unfocused Jack who’s set out to prove he’s more than just another acoustic guitarist by dabbling in everything from reggae to hip-hop to a brand of adult contemporary that would make even the leader singer of Five for Fighting blush.
Proof of that can be found in the inherently generic “Sunshine in Your Heart,” the disc’s first track. The faux-funky acoustic guitar pattern leads into the “Hate ain’t nothin’ but love turned inside out / I know the rain ain’t nothin’ to sit around and cry about” chorus, which is enough to make anyone fall in love with hateful rainy days. We get it, dude. The power of positive thinking conquers all. Sure.
“A Lot Like Me” is particularly suspect. A cheese-tastic ballad (with a melodramatic piano line to boot!), the track offers the single worst moment of the set as Garber goes for power with an extended yelp of the line “back in his room” and failing epically. The moment, in all reality, is indicative of why “Live at Strathmore” doesn’t work. The performance is an attempt at grabbing a moment of soul and passion within one line and one note. And while it fails because the singer simply can’t find the note he’s looking for, it also fails because it’s hard to believe anything that appears here doesn’t deserve the word “faux” in front of it.
“Hula Hoop Girl”? Faux reggae. “Don’t Wanna Make a Baby, Baby”? Faux white-boy pop-hop that makes Jason Mraz look innovative. “Third Time’s a Charm”? Faux calypso with the one run-of-the-mill approach most people who don’t know how to write a calypso song take (though it should also be noted the performance features one of the few bright spots on the album, a sterling cameo from Chelsey Green, who effortlessly sings circles around Garber).
It all adds up to one big old-fashioned ball of generic pop radio wannabe faux that at times simply becomes impossible to believe.
But that doesn’t mean the set itself is worthless. Not even close, actually.
Jon Carroll’s piano playing is an encouraging touch to an otherwise suspect release, from a talent standpoint. His performance is consistently interesting and competent throughout all 11 tracks, and it provides a breath of fresh air that grants Garber and his band a level of credibility.
“Plastic Bag” couldn’t survive without the chops Carroll’s fingers provide. While the climax ultimately disappoints by opting to woefully trip into its chorus rather than confidently dive in headfirst, the pop-jazz feel made possible by the piano is one of the few attempts at diversity that works on “Live at Strathmore.”
And keys or not, “It’s About Time” is admittedly fun. It provides a sense of sincere energy that translates well, especially when it’s considered against the rest of the low-rent moves Garber attempts throughout the disc. It’s the first time things finally seem as though they come together for the songwriter and his band. Maybe it’s because he’s loose. Maybe it’s because he’s comfortable. Or maybe it’s because it’s the only time throughout the evening that Garber doesn’t seem like he’s trying too hard to be someone else.
Being someone else: That’s the single underlying problem of “Live at Strathmore.” Sure, things swim into an uncharted river of cheese at times, and yes, there are moments that prove to be too cookie-cutter to bear, but all told, the effort itself is more an attempt at proving who or what Ted Garber wants to be, rather than what he is. Because as any good songwriter should already know, sometimes merely being OK at being yourself is always better than trying to be good at being someone else.
** 2 STARS OUT OF 4 **