I have a suspicion--and it's only a suspicion, based upon absolutely nothing but instinct--that Airport Cathedral mastermind Andy Fitts is well aware of his limited singing abilities, and he doesn't let that stand in his way. That's not an insult; many very talented musicians (such as Neil Tennant, Nick Cave, and Stephin Merritt) do not possess a wide vocal range. Considering that the vocals on Airport Cathedral's debut Jetlag--out now on Burning Building Recordings--never ventures into anything beyond a dark, slightly countrified groan, it's easy to come to the conclusion that Fits is well aware of his own capabilities. It is better for a singer to stay within their abilities, than to experiment and fall flat.
To put it in perspective...I have a box of really terrible CD's that should never have been released and will never be reviewed, and two out of three of these records are in this box for one reason: the signing. Singing ability is important, people! The line between cool and crap is very thin, and so many of these records might be passable if only someone had told the singer that they were simply doing things that nature didn't intend; if you can't sing in tune as a tenor, do you honestly think you're going to be a better singer if you sing as an alto, or, God forbid, in falsetto? I THINK NOT.
But back to the record at hand. So we've got a guy who doesn't have much of a vocal range, and considering how restrained his singing sounds, it's easy to assume that he knows he doesn't have much of a range. What, then, would be the correct answer to the "what should they do" question? It's simple: focus on songwriting and composition. It is within this element that Airport Cathedral succeeds. The first song, "Cure-Alls," hooks you in with a deep yet powerful opening tag, and Fitts' voice--a smokey, melancholy croon not unlike scene neighbor David Bazan--rests comfortably within the confines of the song's melody. The next song, "Dagger," is even stronger; this song bears--nay, demands--repeated listens, because each listen seemingly sheds light on something new. Understated piano and understated guitars might be understated by themselves, but when mixed with Fitts' understated singing, the combination makes for a haunting, brooding song that would have/should have overcaffeinated labelfolk screaming "THIS IS THE DAMN SINGLE" to hapless and helpless college radio programmers and/or any person unfortunate enough to cross their path.
Listen to: "Daggers"
"TKO" continues this one-two punch, placing Fitts and company in line with the apt comparisons to luminaries as Pedro the Lion, Jets to Brazil, and Damien Jurado. Originality is overrated; it's what you can do within the confines of a song that makes you special. The key difference, though, is that it's better to sound "inspired by" a band than it is to sound "just like" a band. Fitts and company might find inspiration in a well-developed style and sound, but it's to their credit that they've steered clear of being simply more than a new addition to a long line of imitators. It doesn't hurt that Airport Cathedral has some talented friends, as he's had help from Rosie Thomas, as well as members of such great bands as The Prom and Crystal Skulls, but the heights that are found on the first half of Jetlag are indebted to nobody but Airport Cathedral.
Every high comes with a low, though, and after the steller-but-not-as-magical "The Tease," Jetlag starts to lag, and it feels as if Airport Cathedral is merely running in place, neither breaking any new ground nor living up to the challenge and the promise of the first few songs. Know what, though? That's perfectly okay. My advice to Fitts is simple: keep it up. This is a promising debut, and considering Fitts knows his weaknesses, and if he's found his voice--and I suspect he has--the only thing left to do is modify it, play around with it, and make it better. The hard stuff's out of the way. Listeners, enjoy this now, but let's give Fitts a little bit of space so that his music can grow even further.
ps. if i were your label, i'd lose the cute description of your group as a 'bar band.' that's just tacky, and it sells you short.