by- MIKE OLCOTT
Leave it to Portland firecracker Eric Bettencourt to lead off his second official release, ''The Giraffe Attack Collection,'' with a Freddy Mercury-worthy tune about outdoing, or not outdoing, your god.
Buzz has been building on the songwriting phenom ever since he dropped his sugar-plum debut, ''Fine Old World,'' back in January. It's not uncommon for an overzealous strong starter to fall into the bad sophomore slump, but Bettencourt seems too well prepared to suffer the obvious misstep. Truth be told, he has earned the pop swagger that drives this record. It likely won't be long before Bettencourt moves on from the venerable Old Port circuit to play the houses of blues that lie ahead.
It's not the ever-reliable backwoods rasp on Bettencourt's pipes that makes this effort stand out. Nor is it the genuine sense of fun that, from the sounds of it, these able musicians are having together. It's actually the way Bettencourt makes writing great songs seem really easy.
Take the effortless, bountiful hooks on ''Empty Sidewalks.'' A breezy Allman-Brothers-in-the-clouds verse opens up in a fist-pumping reggae chorus. These sure-handed decisions are the mark of an artist supremely comfortable in his own skin.
On ''The Fear,'' Bettencourt lets his inner Janis Joplin run all over backbeat country soul to wickedly catchy effect. Drawing from two clear influences, Ray LaMontagne and Van Morrison, the band offers a sweetly swaying backporch shuffle on ''Fell Into Place.'' In other words, feel free to put the feet up and find something to sip. The music does all the work for you -- songcraft as it was originally intended.
Oddly, it's the single ''Two Wine Glasses'' that turns out to be the weak point of the album. An obvious storyline (wine + just the two of us = intrigue) powering a radio-ready repetitive riff comes up a bit flat, as if the group forgot about the looseness that made the rest of the session click.
It should also be noted that Bettencourt is a professional about his work. He has cultivated a following worthy of the imminent ''Next Step'' simply by keeping his nose to the grindstone. While the plight of a young musician is surely a harrowing one in these days and times, Bettencourt has protected himself from an uncertain future the best way he knows how -- by writing irresistible, powerhouse records.