Throughout pop music history, self-released albums have legendarily been viewed as something like the vanity presses of the music business: for every R. Stevie Moore, there are a hundred people whose bank accounts outstripped their talent. The rise of the Internet and the concomitant ease of self-distribution has made it easier and cheaper than ever before for a semi-talented hack to put out his own album, with the result that listeners interested in non-mainstream tunes now have to wade through seemingly thousands of awful albums to find the occasional gem. Which brings us to the debut album by California singer/songwriter Gary Henson: The Coast Is Clear, at first glance, looks like it might be ghastly, given its extremely dated and rather unattractive cover art. Surprisingly, however, Henson turns out to be a genuinely gifted pure pop songwriter: not quite power pop, because his primary inspirations sound like they're Brian Wilson, Lindsey Buckingham, and the soft rock of 1970s Southern California rather than the Beatles and Big Star, but definitely with appeal to the modern-day pop underground. The opening title track is outstanding, an instantly hummable tune with a memorable, clever chorus, and while not everything on this slightly too-long 13-track album is up to that standard, enough songs are (particularly the harmony-heavy ballads "Crystal Clear" and "Holiday") to make it worth a listen. Crucially, Henson doesn't fall prey to the usual traps of this brand of pop album: although several of his songs share their titles with familiar hits -- "All by Myself," "Weight of the World" -- he's mindful of the fine line between homage and thievery. The Coast Is Clear is a good-not-great album, but its high points are encouraging enough to suggest that Gary Henson is worth keeping an eye on.
AllMusic Review by Stewart Mason