Marker Starling

Anchors and Ampersands

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After making a smooth-as-expensive-bourbon entrance with I'm Willing, an album of obscure covers from the '60s and '70s, Chris Cummings' band Marker Starling returns with another album of covers done in pastel-colored soft rock/cocktail pop style. On Anchors and Ampersands they cover songs Cummings did with his band Mantler as well as other songs he wrote over the past two decades. There are also versions of the Spinners' "I'll Be Around" and fellow Canadian Sandro Perri's haunting "Double Suicide." Working with a small band whose members definitely have a working knowledge of Donald Fagen's The Nightfly, the album was recorded live with Cummings on keyboards and velvety vocals. As on I'm Willing, he shows off his bona fides as a crooner, laying back in the groove and setting a course for less-is-more. He and the band cast a narcotic spell that lasts for a little more than half an hour, warming the cold air and sounding like the aural equivalent of a fruity cocktail served poolside. The album has a minimalist soul, with no one ever playing two notes when one will do and backing Cummings' vocals with calm and steady harmonies straight out of the Free Design playbook. It's all very pretty and nice, but might fade into the background without some decent songs along the way. Luckily, Cummings chose a good batch of his past efforts to focus on; whether it's a star-crossed ballad like "No More Partylights" or a shuffling slo-motion disco jam like "Shadows and Counterparts," there are plenty of hooks and subdued emotions to go around. Turning Perri's song into a cosmic cowboy ballad is a neat trick, too. The take on "I'll Be Around" doesn't come off quite as well, leading one to wish Cummings had done another gem from his back pages instead. It's still pleasant though, and doesn't detract from the quiet beauty of the rest of the album. Between Cummings' wonderfully warm and woody vocals, the simply lush backings, and the tender sweetness of the songs, Anchors and Ampersands is truly a treat for lovers of soft pop.

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