I know, I know. Never judge a book by its cover. Or a CD, for that matter. Still, the first impression given by the sleeve of local pop-rock trio Reason 27’s debut Hard to Believe is inauspicious, to say the least. The cover in question features the band’s members coolly leaning against a backyard deck overlooking a typical Vermont country scene. In the center stands bandleader Doug Ryan, curiously bedecked in a top hat, with a playing card — the ace of spades — peeking out from the pocket of his short-sleeved, collared shirt. Actually, a Dockers-clad Mad Hatter is not a bad allegory for the quirkily adventurous but rather charmingly un-hip music found within.
The disc begins with the piano-driven “Reasons.” Vocalist Casey Ryan boasts a smooth, boyish delivery not unlike that of Ben Folds, an acknowledged influence. Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Doug Ryan, best known for his work with local bar band Sturcrazie, is the group’s centerpiece. Buoyed by Eric Foye’s dextrous percussion work, he unfurls snappy slap-bass licks amid punchy, dissonant piano lines — the latter of which Doug also plays, though presumably not simultaneously. There’s no question that the dude has chops. But his technical zeal can get the better of him: Unwieldy low-end ramblings sometimes prove more distracting than complementary, no matter how slickly played.
Lighter-worthy ballad “Won’t Mean Anything” follows. Doug Ryan’s versatility is verified as he weaves a baleful sax around lilting acoustic guitar. Casey Ryan again proves an immensely capable vocalist, rescuing Doug’s borderline saccharine, romantic lyrics with heartfelt and winsome tact.
As a tunesmith, Doug is puckishly clever, though somewhat derivative — let’s just say there’s at least one local songwriter who remembers Steely Dan fondly. He seduces the listener with accessible pop melodies. But any conventional contrivances are waylaid by chameleonic chord progressions and jazzy rhythmic shifts.
Doug is similarly devious — and, occasionally, similarly trite — in his lyrics. While you won’t find many life-altering pearls of wisdom within Hard to Believe, songs such as “No Show,” “Feed Me Something More” and “Ourselves” — the last of which features an engaging string arrangement and lovely viola work by Augusto Salazar — hint at a sly and often humorous poetic prowess.
So, maybe you really can’t judge an album on face value alone. Or, even if you can, you probably shouldn’t. Either way, those who approach Reason 27’s Hard to Believe with an open mind will likely find an enjoyable, if safe, journey down the rabbit hole.