Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.
In this evening’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we shine our gaze on Bob Pepek, a singer songwriter that’s been a staple of the independent community since his debut eight years ago. Hailing from Connecticut, the acoustic rocker cites influences the likes of Elliot Smith, Jack’s Mannequin, the Beatles, and more. His latest studio endeavor is ‘Pratfalls and Curtain Calls,’ a rather elegant collection of eclectic original tracks well worth a listen. Let’s explore them in some detail.
The production quality of ‘Pratfalls and Curtain Calls’ is immediately evident in the opening notes of ‘Against My Will,’ the first track on the LP. The song is jam-packed with a bevy of influences, an early indicator that the album has quite a varied sonic palette. Though ‘Against My Will’ boasts lovely introspective songwriting, its most powerful statement is its instrumentation.
Pepek, unlike most other independent acoustic singer songwriters, has surrounded himself with a remarkably good studio outfit. ‘Against My Will’ is an explosive track that’s as danceable as it is thought-provoking. At times, the instrumentation even borders on Latin influence. Pepek has, one could argue, pushed several genre influences together to craft his own sound. That’s admirable because he’s not derivative, something that can’t be said for the vast majority of his counterparts.
‘Amber, Smoke, and Ashes’ continues the album with a melancholy jaunt through reminiscing on a relationship gone by. It’s a heartbreaker, in truth, and a brutally relatable song. The stunning piano riff flourishes in between each verse and ‘Amber, Smoke, and Ashes’ is home to one of the album’s most fantastic solos: a vibrant, fast-paced organ piece that’s unforgettably awesome.
Another vital element of Pepek’s music is his poignant prowess on lead vocals, something that shines particularly bright on ‘I’ll Carry On,’ a breathtaking number that gives Pepek more of a spotlight to explore his vocal range. He has a very emotional voice, one that lends itself well to songs like ‘I’ll Carry On’ where one can’t help but reflexively reach for a lighter (or phone flashlight) to hold high in the air. (Also, there’s an instrumental interlude that hops into a different key… absolutely fascinating compositional structure.)
Thematically and sonically, ‘Shattering The Mold’ is an intriguing counterpart to ‘I’ll Carry On.’ The former is a statement of resilience, as is the second, but the second also recognizes how hard internal strife can be, comparing it to falling shooting star, a man crawling toward inevitable demise, and so on. The soft-spoken ‘Take Me For Me’ arguably completes this mid-album spectrum of emotion, acknowledging one’s faults as part of who they are.
‘Pratfalls and Curtain Calls’ moves back into darker territory, however, with ‘Out Loud’ delving back into territory of a relationship gone awry. The intro to the song is terrific, especially with the bass banter. At times on the track, Pepek’s voice doesn’t feel like it’s in a comfortable range for him. It does get a bit pitchy. This issue is short-lived, though, because ‘Missing You’ is a solid track, one that continues Pepek’s emotional journey through moving on in the aftermath of his relationship. The song doesn’t discount the past relationship, nor does it ask for it to return, but Pepek acknowledges the pining deep in his heart. There also seems to be a sitar or a similar instrument in the backdrop, which is rather unique.
As the album begins to close, ‘Ship Me Away’ is probably the closest Pepek gets to “rock” territory. It’s an upbeat, foot-tapping song with an electric guitar complementing Pepek’s acoustic performance. It may remind listeners of, perhaps, Bryan Adams or the like. ‘Ship Me Away’ could be off the cutting room floor of ‘Waking Up the Neighbours.’ It’s one of the stronger tracks on ‘Pratfalls and Curtain Calls.’
The second to final track on the album is a softer, more delicate acoustic take of ‘Take Me For Me.’ It’s a nice addition to the album, though it doesn’t make much sense in its current place in the sequence. It would have been better placed either at the end of the album or a “bonus” or “deluxe” track. The closer, ‘Any Other Man’ is a somber, but tactfully executed finale. It doesn’t seem to have the personal revolution that ‘Take Me For Me’ has, but it’s a fine book-end to the collection nonetheless.
The songwriting on ‘Pratfalls and Curtain Calls’ won’t be anything that’s necessarily groundbreaking or entirely new to listeners: it’s a record that chronicles relationship strife. It does, however, take you on that journey in an honest, authentic fashion with fantastic performances on behalf of Pepek and the band backing him on the record. That's very much worth lauding.
Aside from a few moments where Pepek’s voice rings a bit too harshly in the higher sections, each track on this album deserves its place in the line-up. (Perhaps with the exception of ‘Take Me For Me’ repeating.) It’s hard to put out a good singer songwriter record, and even harder to put out one that’s ten songs long and fairly consistent. Pepek’s album is well worth a listen if you’re interested in hearing an artist that, by and large, has done just that.