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Fine Old World Review - The Portland Phoenix

A Winter to Remember - By: Sam Pheifle

A PLAYER: Multi-instrumentalist Eric Bettencourt.

It's been a bit of a long time coming, but Eric Bettencourt, of Giraffe Attack and founder of Shadow Shine Records, tonight drops his debut solo release, Fine Old World, at the Big Easy. As is increasingly common nowadays, Bettencourt plays nearly everything on the album, generally only ceding drum duties to the likes of Chuck Gagne (Dominic and the Lucid) and Ryan Cyr (Strange Pleasure, Giraffe Attack) and getting vocal help from time to time, most notably from Shadow Shine labelmate Kyla Morse.

This micro-managing makes for an extremely cohesive, if sometimes self-indulgent, record, with a title track split into three pieces throughout the record that is emblematic of Bettencourt's effort to release more than just a collection of songs. He plays myriad guitars well, along with banjo, keyboards, and sundry percussion instruments, and his vocals vary between a clean tenor and a grittier mid-range delivery, a spectrum that runs between Jim James and Kelly Jones.

At times, he can be a bit manic, as on the quick-strummed "Delaney" (which is fitting, considering the recent passing of wonderful songwriter Delaney Bramlett, who with then-wife Bonnie wrote some amazing songs and played some great gigs in the '60s and '70s) that luckily gets reined in a bit for a major sing-along chorus with Morse. Bettencourt's guitar tone might remind you of Dickey Betts's here, but his solo is more jazzy than jammy.

But most of the record is either playfully upbeat or genuinely soulful, and his lyrics are nearly universally interesting and poetic. "The Plan" (maybe a Built to Spill reference?) is the former, a shuffling old-time rock tune full of self-assured resignation: "What you see is what you get/There ain't no point in changing it/Perfection she's a busted fairy tale." Teamed with backing vocals from Dominic Lavoie, you might be reminded of a Jeff Buckley tune.

"Sweet Elise" opens as a bit of a gospel piece, rootsy with martial drums in the backing, and Bettencourt doing his own sweet-voiced backing vocals. Then the guitar gets quicker in its up and down runs and comes back out into the countrified open. There's some very nice electric guitar work here.

Bettencourt also throws in a Ray LaMontagne cover, "I Wish I Could Change Your Mind," which has been kicking around on various bootlegs. He gives it the full-band, 12-bar blues treatment, keeping things as dark and broody as LaMontagne likes them, but infusing it with an almost Christmas cheer in the turnaround.

This is a nice record, with some very good ideas fleshed out, but it may be that Bettencourt's future lies more in producing and songwriting than with fronting a solo act.

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