On Portland-based Eric Bettencourt's great debut disc "Fine Old World," the singer/guitarist mines through dozens of influences to develop the perfect sound. Perhaps it is easy to be hypnotized by Bettencourt's endearing joyousness, but it is not a stretch to call this album brilliant.
Opener "Fine Old World Pt. 1," sounds like a frolic through a jam pop iPod: shades of David Gray's electronic samples, Phish's songwriting and Dave Matthews-style hippie lyricism pepper this tale of being unable to "run from the people that we are."
Bettencourt certainly knows how to express himself, owning a sandpapered voice which recalls Blind Melon's tragically hip frontman Shannon Hoon. While lesser singers would not be able to wrangle such a distinctly ragged tone, Bettencourt nails the harmonies he explores.
Of course, this vocal strength could result from melodies which evoke familiarity while still being creative. Disc standout "Delaney" is so upbeat that believers will begin to sing along even before they know all of the words. Despite its pop hook, Bettencourt also works many complex elements into the song: breezy runs, a hyper-melodic bass line and a tricky transition from featherweight verse to meaty refrain.
Musical highlights hit from every direction through this album. With heavy keys, horns and politically-charged lyrics, the bouncy "Uniform" is a hair away from Rustic Overtones. Great vocal work puts punch into "The Plan," inventive guitars carry "Sweet Elise," and wisps of piano waltz through "Just Walk Away."
Surprisingly, the album's biggest throwaway is the Ray LaMontagne-penned, "I Wish I Could Change Your Mind." Coming off as merely a half-assed blues attempt (albeit with a great guitar solo), it is as bizarre to have a skeletal song in the middle of such an ambitious record as it is to not be impressed with LaMontagne's work. Yet within "Fine Old World's" context, this anomaly makes more sense when understanding that Bettencourt, who plays the majority of the non-percussive instruments on the LP, is best when he has total control.
Honestly, there are too many superlatives which should be pegged to this great piece of work than could be printed in such a short review (but you can hear for yourself at the CD release party on Jan. 10 at the Big Easy). Just go buy it — it's cheaper than a movie and lasts a whole lot longer. Ultimately, it would be best to leave Bettencourt with a piece of his own advice from the appropriately-named final track, "It's Over" — "Don't stop growing/You have come so far."
Maine native Bill Earl is a musician and a music writer. He's currently living in Boston but has his ears on Maine-made music.