The back cover of Billy Caldwell's latest disc, Out of My League, states, "No singer-songwriters were harmed in the making of this recording." Listening to the disc, it's easy to see why: The tunes, while emotionally sincere, lack even the slightest hint of danger.
A familiar face at cafes and coffee shops throughout Vermont, Caldwell recently scored a semi-recurring gig at Nectar's in Burlington. His warm, throaty vocals and unassuming guitar style can be heard in early evening acoustic sets that go well with an after-work lager.
Caldwell's lyrics won't win him a Grammy, but they're refreshingly unpretentious. Opener "Out of My League" commits the nigh-unpardonable sin of equating romance with baseball. "I know my batting average is pretty bad it's true / swingin' and missin' 'til I wind up hitting on you." Yikes. Still, his earnest delivery transforms such cringe-worthy expressions into a kind of self-effacing likeability.
"Evangeline's Trees" features lilting fiddle that weaves in and around a gentle acoustic waltz. Its tale of love gone wrong is timeless; the tune could have been penned in any number of eras on a few different continents. Unfussy and direct, it eschews flashy wordplay in favor of a tender solicitude. This approach is consistent on the rest of the disc, and might even be called a style.
A martial snare shuffle and sturdy chord progression kick off the Celtic-tinged "Dissatisfaction." "I've got nothing to show for the money I've made / I start laughing when I want to cry," Caldwell sings in a brokenhearted yet defiant tone.
"Montana" lightens the mood with a breezy arrangement and playful vocal delivery. "What you doin' there in Montana / When you could be lyin' here with me?" Caldwell asks of a preoccupied paramour. The song's easy cadence and engaging melodies make a compelling case for his sweetheart's swift return.
The disc wraps up with a piano-driven hymn, "Tend the Fire." In it, Caldwell compels listeners to honor their loved ones. The song's quasi-religious temperament is tedious, but its basic message is on the money: Life is short; don't take shit for granted.
Out of My League no doubt comes from Caldwell's heart, but it's difficult to sustain interest in tunes as conventional as those found here. Modesty is well and good, but he could benefit from a bit more bluster. You can egg him on at Nectar's on Wednesday, March 15.
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