If Sufjan Stevens ever gets around to the Northeast in his proposed Fifty States album project, he would do well to skip New Jersey, because singer/songwriter Tris McCall has got the subject covered, in greater depth and with more nuanced, exasperated love for his home state than any mere Turnpike carpetbagger could muster. McCall's fourth album continues a trend started on his brilliant 1999 debut, If One of These Bottles Should Happen to Fall: highly melodic, piano-driven songs with intricate (but rocking) arrangements and insightful lyrics that more often than not reference the Garden State. A first-rate wordsmith on the level of Scott Miller or John Darnielle, McCall packs a novella's worth of keenly observed details into every song. On "The Ballad of Frank Vinieri," he sings a first-person account of a (fictional) Hudson County politician sunk by an unconventional lifestyle ("...They obtained sworn affidavits about psychedelics that I'd used/Several girlfriends and several boyfriends made the cover of the News/...the district went Republican for the first time in 37 years"); he mourns an old teacher and role model who ends up in jail on the sad and hilarious "You're Dead After School"; the slinky "Sugar Nobody Wants" endorses petty thievery and vandalism at a variety of unloved Jersey locations as a sort of what-the-hell morale booster for all concerned. ("These candy-assed forms of civil disobedience will surely be the end of us all.") WFMU, Route 7, Pfizer, strip malls, and highway dividers make appearances, as well as, on the epic "First World, Third Rate," an entire litany of fast-food places, which serve not as jokey shout-outs but as shorthand for a low-expectations-filled youth, the flavors of disappointment, and the guilt of outgrowing your hometown. Though McCall is thoroughly immersed in New York City's indie music scene (he plays keyboards with the acclaimed My Teenage Stride, and his erudite online album reviews and year-end critics poll write-ups are popular in the music geek community), his own music is delightfully outside of its time and place. If anything, McCall's late-2009 release conjures the sprawling sound of the early E Street Band (thankfully minus the saxophone). Musically speaking, many of these songs, such as the seductive and atmospheric "Midnight (Now Approaching)," would have been right at home on side two of Born to Run. But not even the Boss has taken such an emotional interest in day-to-day politics and public policy as McCall has. As he says in his song "The Throwaway," "C'mon you emo kids accept me as one of your own/I'm just like you, I stupidly persevere." McCall's perseverance and musical ambassadorship help uncover the hidden complexities of a place that outsiders only think they know.
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AllMusic Review by Paula Carino