The shine is real, man. When local records sound like pretty much anything other than a few dudes banging away on instruments in an alleyway garage, they impress. Even if the songwriting suffers, high-level production can mask a whole lot of errors and create a level of smoke and mirrors that warrants its own sense of admiration. It’s amazing how high songs can climb with the help of some quality studio equipment and a wealth of Protools knowledge.
Leify Green, who has local ties, succeeds in spades at this with his latest eight-song collection, “Set Sail.” Seemingly schooled in the same pop-hippie class as someone like Jason Mraz, his blend of acoustic folk/funk is as accessible as anything you could hope to hear on any radio station in America named Kiss FM. It can be quirky, it can be dramatic, it can be romantic, it can be inspiring, and above all, it can be held against the best locally bred music and hold its own.
Take the born-to-dominate-pop-radio “The Same Way,” recorded in Greenbelt. Green flashes between languages as a woodblock holds down the groove and the singer half-raps his way through the verses. The chorus then recalls all the great songwriter types that cracked through into the mainstream under the umbrella of alternative pop-rock in the late-’90s/early Aughts. Even the sniff of funk in the electric guitar that stands tall throughout the hook is pure, innocent, infectious fun.
Equally as memorable is the Dave Matthews-ish “Set Yourself Free,” which sweats Caribbean flair and sunny skies. Leaving port with that trademark acoustic guitar, the tambourine marking the twos and fours musically recalls a blend of stripped down intrigue that a group like Counting Crows proved they mastered more than a decade ago with the “Sunday Mornings” portion of “Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings.” Combining as much with the juxtaposition of Green’s smooth, Dispatch-ian vocals, you have on display the musical sweet spot between sad and happy that is an impressive feat to accomplish.
Taking on other artists’ songs works for this guy, too. Damien Rice’s “Cannonball” is actually served better than the original here, the dramatics of a single man with a single acoustic guitar providing the narrative a much-needed amount of heft. Plus, it’s not like Green likes to shy away from vocally theatric moments, and here, the ostentatiousness of his performance adds a layer of arousal for anyone listening with a beating heart. And if that’s not enough, Muse’s “Madness,” which kicks off the set, proves that Green knows how to pick some pretty cool covers. Who would have thunk a song originally led forth by sleek electronics could work so well stripped down? But a good song is a good song, and the singer’s take on it here verifies that 2012 hit as a track that’s anything but bad.
That said, Green can get in his own way when it comes to being a bit too self-serious now and then. “Sail” is a weird, if not somewhat laughably dark 3:42, what with the singer constantly wondering about his own ADD. Moody and dour — complete with TV-movie strings, even — the song climaxes with an oddly placed refrain: “Maybe I should cry for help / Maybe I should kill myself / I blame it on my ADD, baby.” With nothing taken away from the very serious notion of mental illness, it’s hard to tell if this is supposed to be digested as an ironic comment on a generation that constantly discusses depression or if the guy is searching for help. Making it more curious is the fact that every other song around it is soaked in good vibes and bright colors. It’s a noticeably regretful misstep on a record that otherwise often shines like a gorgeous spring afternoon.
Even “Lost At Sea,” which lays claim to a title that suggests doom, actually elicits more smiles than it does tears. Dude makes accidentally going off-course sound so much like the most hopeful accident a sailor could encounter on any given day, Captain Phillips would approve. And “Snowstorm in Seattle” is beautifully constructed pop rock that will stick in your brain for days. “It’s just a snowstorm in Seattle / We’ll stay nice and warm inside / And I’ll sing all through the evening / You can dance into the night / We’ll be feeling quite all right,” he offers, and damn it if you’re not longing for winter again. He’s just so charming, so nonchalant, so … happy.
And, even with that tiny solemn mid-record mixup in mind, that’s what makes “Set Sail” an album worth checking out: Leify Green will make you feel good about feeling good. Complete with polished production, crafty, simplistic songwriting, and a lyrical sense that (mostly) provides faith in all mankind, it’s almost a shame that these songs didn’t hit the universe until now — more than 10 years after they would have had a real shot at breaking the singer through into the mainstream. Because who knows: If someone would have thrown him on a tour opening for Shawn Mullins back when something called MTV still mattered, there’s a chance reviews for this album wouldn’t be limited to coming from a local newspaper in Frederick, Maryland.
So … yeah. The shine is real, guys. The shine is most definitely real.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***