This is the second of two releases from Inimitable Records, closely related to the first I reviewed a couple of weeks ago- Building Seven- "The Time Has Come". Ryan J-W Smith happens to be one half of Building Seven (along with Michael Schofield, aka Micro). That CD fell into the category of dreampop/softside downtempo. This one is basically in the same genre, albeit with a somewhat different feel. But first, a little bit about Ryan J-W Smith. The guy is somewhat of a Renaissance man, a musician since age 5, singer-songwriter at 13, an acclaimed Elizabethan playwright in the Shakespearean vein, an actor, director, photographer... jeez, is there anything this guy can’t do?
So how does Smith’s solo CD rate musically? Well, generally, pretty good. It has a cohesive flow often lacking from solo efforts where an artist dabbles in diverse styles in order to exhibit versatility. Ryan sticks to what he does best here- ethereal downtempo mellow pop with thick, lush orchestrations with accessible melody lines and a tinge of sadness. The opener, "White Russian", is a bit of an emotionally aching enigma that sets the stage for what’s to come. Ultimately complex, with nearly every sonic element incorporated in it that comes into play in later pieces. None of the songs with lyrics fall into the traditional verse-chorus-verse category. Rather, there is a repeated memorable line sung with soulful restraint but with heartbreaking pathos that digs deep into the psyche. Very effective. Ryan J-W Smith knows how to tug the heartstrings with seemingly little effort.
Although some of the arrangements are lush and rife with an undercurrent of sonic effluvia, there is a basic simplicity to the album that ultimately works in its favor. At times, the music is Eno-esque in layered synthetic clouds of ambience and uncomplicated piano melodies. Although Becoming sometimes verges on "preciousness", there are enough engaging elements that emerge to keep the album from tumbling into the cloying abyss of schmaltz. The use of vocoder is one particularly nice touch, but since words can’t really be distinguished, it has the effect of an auxiliary musical instrument rather than vocal treatment. The album wraps up full circle with its last track, "Emily", a fitting song of departure with the lyrics "Ill see what comes to me... let go, and let it be, Ill see what comes to me... ergo Emily" backed by acoustic guitar, brushed percussion, strings, piano and dabs of echoed short synth pads. A pensive reminiscence of someone you knew some time ago washes over you and as the scene fades to black. Even after an hour, it leaves you wanting more.
Becoming is an album of emotional wistfulness that rolls dreamily along like the soundtrack to a modern romantic foreign film. You know the kind – where at the end, you’re still not sure just what the relationship of the guy and the woman was after she jumped off the bridge into the water. But you know there was something about her he could not live without, and something about her life that she could not live with.