He might not want to hear it, but Christian Lopez sure does know how to write a hell of a pop song. He’s said in the past that he’d rather not be associated with such aesthetics, claiming accessible music isn’t real and rather it’s the product of some cynical machine that churns out hit after hit without any regard for establishing human emotion within the fabric of the art.
But machine or no machine, Lopez’s debut EP, “Pilot,” certainly knows how to appeal to all demographics at all times. And whatever influenced that ability is not something about which the singer should be discouraged. Instead, the Shepherdstown area native should hold his head high, proud of the accomplishments that sneak their way into each of these five songs. Anyone can be born with a great voice. Even more people can learn how to master the guitar. But good songwriting? That’s what separates men from boys, and “Pilot” suggests this guy has no trouble with a mature crowd.
Opener “Will I See You Again,” which is both the EP’s single and best track, calls upon influences that fall directly in line with contemporary pop radio, evoking comparisons to Jason Mraz or even someone like Gavin DeGraw. Completing a blend that’s all Lopez’s own, however, is his willingness to include the sounds of Appalachia underneath his radio-friendly formula, especially whenever his voice morphs into its most interesting influence: Ryan Adams.
And that’s where local banjo goddess Chelsea McBee proves to be the X-factor of the project. “Will I See You Again” feels different because of the subliminal upstrokes she offers on her bluegrass staple. Then, when the time comes for a killer harmonica solo, McBee falls in brilliantly with a series of riffs that demand more attention than they receive. It’s the perfect touch that puts the Christian Lopez Band over onto the right side of great.
The kicked-up dust of “Between Us” also provides McBee the space to shine, that banjo of hers peering through the noise with a sense of taste that’s hard to match. Plus, her backing vocal harmonies provide eloquence to Lopez’s charmingly youthful croons. The combination of the two is one that ought to be longstanding and fruitful with an endless limit. It’s just too hard to find that type of natural chemistry between two artists on the local stage.
Another indispensable element here comes in the form of Mike Webb’s keyboard and organ. It provides big-time warmth to “Will I See You Again,” and it even rips off a memorable solo throughout the middle of “Between Us.” A song like “Amiss” couldn’t survive without the Wallflowers-esque sustaining chords that so sturdily hold up the track’s tender moments. Webb’s performances provide grandeur best heard in the type of Americana rock that dominated college dorms in the 1990s.
Though if Lopez was looking to graduate from a university and propel his way into adulthood, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better diploma than EP-ender “This Romance.” Dave Cobb’s piercing electric guitar — combined with a driving tempo that’s subtle in its impact — make for a type of rockabilly that Sun Records would have once been honored to record. A series of consistent handclaps later and you have the sound of a party you only wish you were cool enough to attend.
And, really, it’s that type of confidence that carries the Christian Lopez Band into rarified air. These songs are impeccable, a welcoming collection that transcends genres and should be embraced by anybody who claims to be a fan of good music. Which, in turn, makes “Pilot” one of the great pop-music EPs this area has seen in a long, long time, even if the band’s namesake claims to want nothing to do with such a label.
At the end of the day, though, Christian Lopez can call it whatever he wants to call it — as long as he knows well enough that he shouldn’t change a thing.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***