Tom McRae
All Maps Welcome
Sony
2005
B



who knew Adult Contemporary was such a subdivided genre? Hot AC, Modern AC, Soft AC, AC-Oldies, AC Romantic... And who cares? No matter what modifier follows, or what it actually means in radio format speak, Adult Contemporary is a brand of shame to many music fans. Once these words pop up in a couple of record reviews an artist could wear them like a scarlet “AC” for the rest of their career.

I’ve never seen the AC badge pinned on Tom McCrae, but it could happen quite easily. Taken in snippet, McCrae seems to make music that you can road rage, or finish those reports to without much interference.

I almost made the mistake of casting McCrae into my personal Adult Contemporary void when I first heard advertisement preview clips for a live performance on World Café in 2001. Luckily, I caught the actual show and gave him his day in court. The verdict: Not guilty. A case of mistaken identity.

McCrae is a gloriously scathing songwriter. What endangers his good name to the cut of AC is his anodyne sense of melody and mood. His music flows like morphine and can easily anesthetize listeners to the scalpel of his worldview.

His 2000 Mercury Prize nominated self-titled debut is a barren record of lonesome beauty. Musically, the CD is tightly focused on McCrae’s elysian voice, acoustic guitar, and cello. The follow-up, Just Like Blood, though not a bad record, was a bit of a disappointment (it still caused some drool pooling in the glossies) and feels like a repackaging of what gained him the most applause from his first record wrapped in lots of gratuitous instrumental density.

But where his debut was narcotic in its quite intensity, All Maps Welcome leaves you hypoxic. Track after track fights towards high peaks with honest struggle and determined triumph. Which isn’t to say that McRae resorts to gratuitous climax. Instead, he is equally adept at soaring in near silences (“My Vampire Heart”) as he is in voice-straining mega-choruses (“Silent Boulevard”).

The record opens with “For the Restless,” a vampy strut adorned with tiptoe piano flourishes and bluesy slide drips. The follow up, “Hummingbird Song,” is a ballad shaded in deep percussive ambiance that surrounds a core of acoustic guitar and voice without ever harassing the focus.

“Packing for the Crash,” offers a great view of the Coldplay songwriting vessel stalled and out of hot air far bellow its heights. “It Ain’t You,” is a whispered admission of loneliness yet a refusal of concession to the person who caused it: “I could use a friend. But it ain’t you.”

Taken without full attention, All Maps Welcome might not offend the contemporary adult, but it’s far from No Jacket Required—lines like “If it don’t end in bloodshed dear, it’s probably not love,” could knock the average minivan pilot off her even keel.

McRae packs plenty of knockout punches into the eleven tracks of All Maps Welcome, but at 28, he’s probably just getting warmed up. Let’s hope that the future finds him continuing to over-feel and not over-think his music.


Reviewed by: Mario Quadracci
Reviewed on: 2005-07-26
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