For those who don’t know, let’s get caught up: Walkersville’s Declan Kennedy appears to be a music junkie. Check out his Facebook page or, more impressively, his YouTube page, where a video of him playing drums along to Maroon 5’s “Sugar” has nearly 1,000 views in one month. He says his hero is Dave Grohl, and, if you look hard enough, you’ll find a screen shot of a message that Billy Idol’s drummer left him on Twitter, complimenting the guy on his performance of “Rebel Yell.”
He also writes his own songs. Armed with an acoustic guitar, he fits the bill of singer-songwriter almost perfectly. He’s earnest. His voice is fine enough. The structures are so cookie-cutter that they mostly blend together in a manner that walks too close too often to the ever-dreadful line of boring. It’s all mid-tempo. It’s all emotional. It’s all predictable. If you know what exists in the space between John Mayer and Chris Carrabba, you know Declan Kennedy.
And you also know what you’ll find on his latest 12-song set, “Desire To Inspire.” It’s not bad. Not bad by any means. But it’s also not distinguished. The formula is so ubiquitous that on one level, you almost wonder if you’ve heard these songs before, while on the other, it’s hard to get past a third or fourth listen with any amount of curiosity still in-tact. Just sit opener “Afraid Of Living” next to closer “I Found You,” and you’ll hear what that means.
The former, benefiting from a slight kick in tempo, establishes Kennedy as someone with a serviceable voice and a knack for what would be radio-rock if he had a band behind him. The only real misstep is that the track’s chorus could use just a little more depth. Repeating “You are so afraid” before arriving at a painfully cliched payoff — “What’s there to be afraid of?” — sounds even worse than it reads. The latter slows things down a bit, but the chord progressions aren’t breaking any ground. Add in lines like, “I’ve never seen my happiness really last” in a downtrodden manner, and the surrounding platitudes are hard to swallow.
“Desperate Times Call For Desperate People” feels like it would make a pretty good pop-punk tune if he had players to back it up. It’s also one of the few tracks here that offers a fresh-sounding hook that shows some sign of imagination. Kennedy even leaves space for a bridge that’s begging for some tasteful soloing on top of it. The whole thing sums up the double-edged sword that the singer often uses: He has good musical sense, but no one to really share it with.
That haunts him, somewhat ironically, on a song called “Good At Being Me.” Its hook is probably the set’s best, albeit fairly mushy, but the potential in it appears limitless. Just imagine a backing vocal harmony echoing his demand to “stop making eyes,” or some tasteful electric guitar noodling beefing up the catchy backdrop Kennedy establishes. His nuances in performance set it apart from the rest of the record — vocally, his tone is both beaten and fed up, which creates an interesting dichotomy, relatively speaking — but instead of celebrating what is, it’s hard not to question what could be.
Such is the train of thought elsewhere. “Making Out” takes it cues from every Confessional made to a Dashboard, but at more than five minutes, it wears out its welcome for just a dude with an acoustic guitar. “Misanthropes” is too slow and too whiny, even though the guy earns points for using such a big word for a song title. And “Favorite Shade Of Blue” is a declaration of self that kind of works, if only because the chorus’ repetition sticks in your head longer than you might want it to.
But unfortunately, that’s the exception to the rule while considering the entirety of “Desire to Inspire.” Breathy, emotional, oppressed and capable, Declan Kennedy has a voice that was made to be heard alongside mid-1990s pop rock and open a Dexter Freebish tour. The problem here is that he’s a victim of his own inspirations, relying too heavily on played-out ethos that wore themselves wary even when the professionals mastered them. Simply put, it just feels like this guy has so much more to offer than what’s here, and consequently, that makes these 12 songs a frustrating listen.
“All I know is I’m good at being me,” Kennedy asserts in the song of the same name. That you are, dude. But, now, armed with that information … well, what are you gonna do about it?
** 2 STARS OUT OF 4 **