You can say that Luke Alexander isn’t the long lost brother of Dave Matthews, but if you can’t even concede that, at the very least, he falls under the same family tree … well, you don’t know what it’s like to crash into anyone. The similarities in voice are uncanny, sure, but even the subject matter rings true to how the pop star approaches songwriting. Love. War. Loss. Hope. It’s like the guy either signed up for a DMB Doctorate or the two singers somehow became separated at birth.
Such has never been more evident than it is on the debut LP from Alexander’s brainchild, Big Hoax. A collection of songs that longtime followers of the group will quickly recognize, “Mirror Image / Mirage” takes the band to unforeseen heights with top-shelf production values, tightly knit performances and an honesty that’s hard to come by, regardless of whether your name’s Dave, Luke — or even Neil, for that matter. Never before has Alexander’s work been so shiny, so complete.
Take opener “Cafe On Market St.,” a staple in the band’s set for years. Beefed up with sustaining multi-instrumental notes, it eases into itself by way of something like Matthews’ “Bartender,” a slow burn that encapsulates darkness and atmosphere. You barely get to the minute mark before that voice explodes and the comparisons between artists come through clearer than ever. Plus, the Frederick-area native knows how to write a hook, the song’s chorus providing a cadence that begs to be heard on 2001 pop radio.
Leading into perhaps the group’s most recognizable song, “Over and Over,” doesn’t hurt, either. There’s a reason it drew the attention of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest a few years ago, and part of that logic deals with how timeless the track feels, even in 2017. It’s like night and day, when you compare it with the version that appeared on Alexander’s initial EP, “Open.” Not only does the trumpet add a delicious drama, but the tempo finally feels settled in, an obvious reiteration that practice can, indeed, make perfect.
Other old favorites shine, too. “War Boar” can still incite a party with its boogie-down bluegrass accented by Jason Zeckowski’s banjo. “We all fell apart,” Alexander demands, as a chorus of lush backing harmonies provides a foundation sturdy enough to build any house from the ground up. “Old Maid,” meanwhile, continues to charm and impress with its ruckus kick up in tempo around the two-minute mark. And while this version of “Big Jay” lacks the rawness that made it a standout on the Flying Dog Brewery/Frederick Playlist compilation a year and a half ago, it’s still a bundle of fun, even with the added dobro work that adds a brand new color to an already-layered portrait.
The only downtime comes when the band gets downtrodden. Balladry can be a tough line to walk when you’re as versatile as Big Hoax is, and “Above All Else” feels less realized than its brothers and sisters. Yes, it can ascend and descend adequately, but by the time you get around to it — track 12 of 14 — you feel like you’ve heard all these tricks before, even if they aren’t the worst things in the world. Alexander’s voice carries it whenever reinforcements are needed, but the truth is that there are certain countries occupying the World Of Midtempo in which these guys don’t work best.
Where they do succeed on that planet, however, is when they mimic their musical soul brethren. “Gaza,” complete with aggressive tom-tom work and ominous horns, feels like it could have been a “Before These Crowded Streets” B-Side, its punctuated stabs midway through a verse providing levity and prudence that gives the song some next-level credibility. And “Run Around” is just jazzy enough to make you feel like you’ve heard it before, be it on an episode of “Mad Men” or at some type of throwback prom. It’s interesting enough to avoid being boring, and it’s different enough to create a standard of imagination that serves this band well.
Another thing that serves Big Hoax well? Time. Because, if nothing else, “Mirror Image / Mirage” showcases the value in meticulousness, it highlights the importance of the difference between getting something right and getting something done. Luke Alexander and his boys decided to focus on the former, and with these 14 songs, it pays off in spades. Besides, in this day and age, predominantly pulling from someone like Dave Matthews as an influence is almost novel in practice. In some ways, it’s a welcome throwback to a time when a guy with his acoustic guitar and orchestral inclinations could sell a bagillion records and no one would think twice about it.
Big Hoax, though? Think twice about them. Because “Mirror Image / Mirage” will make sure the brainpower spent is well worth the headspace.
*** 31/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***