Brian Cline lists Toad the Wet Sprocket as a key influence on his music, and, indeed, Hold the Keys is full of the same upliftingly acoustic, melodic pop of that band. He has been compared to Dave Matthews, but that seems a convenient comparison based entirely on the swaying acoustics of both artists' music. The comparisons generally end there, with Matthews going off into an improvised, funk-inflected direction, while Cline opts for highly melodic pop/rock that combines strains of folk and emotive songcraft featuring deft, full-bodied acoustic guitars and unintrusive, breezily rhythmic percussive underpinnings. Hold the Keys was a year in the making. Cline plays every instrument on the album, save for the drum and percussion work of Joey Jam and occasional guitar by co-producer Mark Yamamoto. And it is obvious from the primary themes and concerns expressed in the songs that it was an intensely personal effort. The title track sets the standard for the rest of the album. It has easygoing, calming verses which break into aspiring choruses that simply elevate (in fact, the song communicates a message of self-empowerment), with expert classical guitar accompaniment. Cline seems to be a close musical peer of Duncan Sheik as well, though he is much less lyrically dour. Still, Cline also reveals a sense of loss and confusion ("What's That Do for Me?" is a sarcastic take on selfish love, while "Eye of the Storm" concerns forbidden passion), even delving into anger on occasion. This is serious music that wants to be taken seriously, and as such, can seem rather unrelenting. On songs such as "Let Us Remember" and "Endless Ambition," Cline eschews personal concerns for observations of some of the world's problems, always a tricky line to walk since an artist runs the risk of alienating listeners with a subjective view. Many of the songs are minor-key-based, and, perhaps, too persuasively sorrowful because of it. The tension created when songs draw the listener in with melancholy undertones before bursting forth with inspiring choruses could be construed as pulling the listener's strings unfairly, but that is not really the case here. Cline pulls it all off with aplomb because his views are so grounded in empathy, and his music, buoyed by his breathy vocals, is so passionate and crafted. It requires diligence on the part of the listener, certainly, but it fully compensates the effort. Hold the Keys is a beauty any way you slice it.
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AllMusic Review by Stanton Swihart