Solo Debuts for Drummies

Washington City Paper | July 28, 2006
Quick: How do you get a drummer off your porch? Pay him for the pizza. What did the drummer get on his IQ test? Drool. Yep, when it comes to musical jokes, drummers have traditionally had it the worst. But longtime Jayhawks skinsman Tim O’Reagan has never been content to stay behind the kit: He plays guitar, bass, and harmonica, too, and since joining the Jayhawks in the mid ’90s, he’s contributed muted self-pity number “Bottomless Cup” to 1997’s Sound of Lies, co-written several songs on 2000’s Smile, and contributed two solid tracks to 2003’s Rainy Day Music—the slice-of-life bus-trip ballad “Tampa to Tulsa” and the anxiously chorded “Don’t Let the World Get in Your Way.”

O’Reagan’s solo debut opens with 30 seconds of slow accordion that suggest Gallic reverie more than Midwestern-dive revelry. But the ballad’s subject—self-medication—would fit just fine into the sadsack Americana tradition that alt-country’s made safe for the NPR demo: “Whiskey good, too/Pills, just a few,” he sings. “These things will do/Till I find you.” At four-and-a-half minutes, it’s the longest track, and O’Reagan keeps things laid-back and lazy via slow, fuzzed-out guitars and casual whistling (courtesy of his father).

From there, O’Reagan pretty much hews to sunny tracks rooted in alt-fundamentals, with lyrics equally bucolic and borderline suicidal. “The sun is high, high, high/The sky is blue/And I’ll be inside till my breakdown’s through,” he sings on “That’s the Game,” as a jaunty triple beat gambols with harmonica. On “Black & Blue,” a gently descending guitar figure echoes the song’s recovery theme: “No more dying sounds are coming out of me,” O’Reagan sings.

Tim O’Reagan even conjures up a few moments of modest experimentation of its own. He bumps his voice up an octave or two, to mysterious, ethereal effect on “Ivy.” And one of the slower tracks, “Anybody’s Only,” skips the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure, ending instead by constructing a bridge out of a decent, B-grade simile (“Your love is like a radio,” he sings, “no reception when the clouds are low. I’m trying to give you a signal, but I just can’t get through”) and repeating “to you/to you/to you” as the song winds down.

O’Reagan’s growly croon is a little problematic on “Just Like You,” which, abetted in no small part by some garage-ready guitars, sounds a little like a standard Dylan imitation (with a guitar solo toward the end that references the Byrds for good measure). But O’Reagan’s solid songwriting and willingness to play with sound help his album avoid alt-country cliché, no small feat since the liner notes read like a back issue of No Depression: appearances by another former Jayhawk, Mark Olson, Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dipper Mike “Razz” Russell, and half of the once–of–Son Volt Boquist brothers. It calls to mind another old drummer joke, the one whose setup is “What do you call a guy who hangs around with musicians?” Tim O’Reagan should keep the punch line at bay for a while.

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