Phil Ajjarapu

Sing Along Until You Feel Better

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In the first 20 seconds of Phil Ajjarapu's captivating debut album, listeners are treated to an outright Beatles nod seguing directly into a staccato Beach Boys piano section. While these may be the sonic identifiers of an unabashed pop scholar, Sing Along Until You Feel Better is far more than a collection of tasteful influences. The culmination of a lifetime's worth of gigging, listening, and learning, these 11 big-hearted tracks are the product of a late blooming frontman inspired to make his first solo release after a near-fatal motorcycle accident left him hospitalized for months. A much-admired assistant choir director at an Austin high school, Ajjarapu spent the better part of two decades living in a variety of cities, building his musical résumé playing in bands, doing studio work, and teaching before settling down in Texas' artistically abundant capital. He's the kind of talented, good-natured collaborator who makes friends wherever he lands and it's this personality that he carries through to his 2014 solo debut. Following his miraculous recovery, Ajjarapu put together a plan, launching a successful crowd-funding campaign that would allow him to bring Ken Stringfellow (the Posies, Big Star, R.E.M.) to Austin to help him produce the kind of old-school pop record that relies more on keen arrangements and spirited live performances than endless digital editing and solo multi-tracking. His assembled crew of friends and local indie stalwarts are captured here with great care allowing for plenty of bleed between instruments and a bearing a distinctly analog warmth befitting songs like the dazzlingly melodic title cut and the tender, steel guitar-aided dreaminess of "Overhead." There are elements of the kind of tuneful guitar rock that frequently gets labeled as power pop, especially on tracks like "Angie" and "Talk," but the predominant mode of Sing Along is one of mellow contemplation. As Ajjarapu looks back on the failed relationships, regrets, and uncertainties that fill up a human life, he does so with such grace and sincerity that he manages to steer clear of moody melancholia, even in spite of his personal traumas. The wistful, fingerpicked guitar, banjo, and gentle choral textures (courtesy of his choir students) of "The Wedding Song" or the sweet horn-laden soul of "If We Couldn't Count on Each Other" are delivered with a winning, McCartney-esque hopefulness. He commands his easy tenor well, digging in when a ragged edge is needed and dialing it back to an airy croon on the ballads. Stringfellow's production plays on both the sophisticated Pet Sounds-style orchestrations that are obviously a shared influence, as well as a laid-back '70s singer/songwriter vibe, never allowing the instrumentation to clutter or outgun the well-written song. It's the rare debut that mixes the spark of imagination with the kind of personal depth and maturity that only come from someone who waited a while to make his mark.

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