If listeners wonder why an artist based out of Chapel Hill, NC, is singing about the desert in the American West, it's because he went to college out at the University of Arizona. Be glad that he did -- "Desert Anthem" is a lovely song. On the other hand, "Pannonian Christmas" reflects an altogether opposite geographical direction, as it was inspired by a holiday season spent on the Pannonian peninsula in Yugoslavia; yet the composition is equally moving. Crystalline chimes enhance this instrumental melody, interweaving with guitar, and are very evocative of snowy, beautiful landscapes. Chimes and high flute add grace notes to "Excalibur," lending it a medieval European tone that matches quite well with the Arthurian theme of the lyrics. One of the outstanding performances of this release, it's an original ballad by Collins and his friend and fellow composer Brian Ceccarelli. Other selections, though, are of varying quality, making this debut sampler something of a mixed effort. Sadly, "My Amelia" has a lot of that fingers-slipping-on-the-strings sound, a production imperfection that distracts from the otherwise charming effect of this graceful love ballad. Hopefully the artist will be encouraged to re-record this selection in the future with improved technical quality. "The Children" incorporates some deliberate dissonance, perhaps in an effort to underline the intensity of the theme: the impact of adult violence on them. ("Can you count the bullet holes in the walls?") Yet the effect is grating, and listeners whose ears are disturbed by harsh sounds similar to the grating of fingernails on a blackboard may find that once is enough for them on this song. The challenge with this type of topic is to create something that makes an impression, yet also insists that the listener must hear it again, not hasten to switch to something else. This song hasn't quite got it yet. "Restless Heart" doesn't quite pull together either, as the words are somewhat at odds with the tune. The lyrics, "Love is an anchor and you'll never be/Anything but ready to put to sea," would match better with a nautical-sounding theme, rather than this country arrangement that evokes cowboy boots and lariats. This song feels like it's going in opposite directions with two of its aspects. Perhaps at some point, if the artist would allow these lyrics and the arrangement an amicable divorce, they could be rematched -- the music with some equally country-sounding words and the sea-themed lyrics with a tune that evokes water, not land. There's potential here; however, on this song, it's not fully realized yet. "Texas-Arizona Highway" is much more successful. "The place where God invented sunsets," is an image to smile to, and the lyrics are evocative both of the desert terrain (and weather, with the sudden thunderstorm) as well as the sense of long-distance travel. This one has a clear, accurate feel for its environment, and it works. So some of the selections would be improved by reworking to bring them up to the same high standard of quality found on the other half of the album. Still, it's a promising start, and one that will leave listeners hoping for more songs from Mike Collins that are like "Excalibur" and "Pannonian Christmas."
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