In "(Don't Look So) Distressed," the lyric of which gives Jeff Merchant's debut solo album its title, Window Rolled Down, the song's narrator is accosted by a motorcyclist at a stoplight who remonstrates with him for his hangdog look. "See, I've got these broken bones, but I keep riding," the motorcyclist says. "It'll get better." "I could've rolled up my window," the singer points out, but he didn't. One of the myths about the car culture that is Los Angeles is that all those rolling cubicles cut the citizens off from each other. But Merchant's L.A. is an interactive community in which complete strangers buck each other up. He backs that world view with his musical approach, a chamber pop style that mixes his acoustic guitar with warm classical instruments such as cello, French horn, and recorder on melodic, mid-tempo tunes that he tops with his pleasant, ingenuous tenor. The overall sound is reminiscent of some of Richard Barone's recordings of the late '80s and early '90s. But lest things get too chummy and childlike, the lyrics have recurrent dark tones. After all, the singer attracts the motorcyclist's attention because he looks so distressed, and he isn't the only one in these songs who has problems. A frequent concern is housing. In "Landlord Song," the narrator's living space has some real drawbacks: "Walls came down, roof fell in," he sings. "Called the landlord. He didn't come in." In "Eviction (There's a Place)," the landlord does turn up, but only to take away the keys. And even if one is not alone in L.A., company isn't necessarily much help. "You Can't Save Me," Merchant declares in one song. Still, he struggles for a positive outlook, concluding in another, "Wounds Will Heal." This is the Los Angeles of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, and Window Rolled Down would make a good alternative soundtrack to Aimee Mann's song score for that 1999 film.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann