It's not easy sounding like a sad-sack. Some singers have voices that are never gonna sound happy. Ian Curtis, Nico, Mark Kozelek, Nick Drake, Stephin Merritt, Johnny Cash, Nick Cave--these folk have a career history based upon a strong, austere vocal style. Face it, you aren't going to hear any of these fine folk sing happy-go-lucky, la-la-la type songs anytime soon--and you wouldn't expect them to, either. Of course, when you're making music, vocal inflection plays a key part to the whole, erm, "experience" of listening, and if the sad songs sound like they're being sung by a guy or girl with problems, hey, then, they've made the experience all the more realistic. Kudos for that!
Gravenhurst is the project of Nick Talbot, a folk singer-type from Bristol, England, who has a particularly melancholy singing voice. With his sad songs about love and life and the sad keyboard twinkles here and there, you can't help but feel a little bit gray about your day when you listen to Flashlight Seasons. With a style that's reminiscent of lazy journalist's favorite folk reference point, Elliott Smith, Talbot spins his sadness around some very pretty music and makes a result that's rather dour--but it's a harmless dour. He's not going to hurt you, though he may write a song that might make you feel really sad about whatever you did to him.
Still, I really cannot complain about Flashlight Seasons. While the music might not be too far removed from the sad-folk formula, Talbot's voice is the saving grace. He sings in a higher pitch than most folk who make these kind of records, and it's that right there that makes the music rise above the been-there-done-that folkie thing. Add to that occasional swatches of more experimental accompaniment--nothing particularly unique, mind you, but the music is more than just acoustic guitar pickin', too. With the occasional organ, sampled seagulls (I think), piano twinkles here and there, and a focus on a more atmospheric backing, the music itself is a rich delight. Personally, I'm fond of "Damage" and the moody, disturbing "Tunnels," though ultimately no one song stands out as weaker--or stronger--than another.
Talbot has a knack and a talent for the sadder things in life. While the songs might not be particularly memorable outside of Flashlight Seasons--they seem to flow together a little more than I'd like--that doesn't mean that he's a slouch. The music's good, the songs are nice--but how could he make things stand out? I'd like to see him focusing on the instrumental side of things. If you listen to that aspect of his songs, you'll hear some really great things going on--ideas that should be explored. I've always thought that more musicians of this type should add instrumental passages between every few songs. Why? Because if you add a variety of styles, nobody will think you're Elliott Smith #235264246. Flashlight Seasons is a good record from someone who could make a great one. I'm confident of that.