RATING: 4.5 / 5 stars
By Chris Moore:
When Jim Fusco released What About Today? in May 2005, his official website claimed that “this album will prove to be Jim’s best work to date.” I didn’t think about it much at the time, but that tag of “to date” is key, particularly now — four years later — as he releases a new album.
Now, his website asserts that Halfway There is “his most professional and mature album to date.”
There is certainly something very appropriate about the title of this new release. Careful listeners will certainly appreciate the conceptual and thematic connections. In most places on the record, Fusco seems upbeat and generally optimistic, and yet there is a clear feeling of being stuck in a transition phase. “You go on for miles then you stop,” he sings in “On For Miles,” possibly referring to his fiancee (now only months away from their wedding). On “Exception,” he sings, “Why can’t we be an exception to the rule?”
Fusco is even more blunt on “I Got You,” as he wails, “I’ll always have you here and shouldn’t that be enough?”
Halfway There is truly unmatched — as promised — in Fusco’s catalog in terms of not only sound quality and “professionalism,” but also lyrical content and overall effect. This is an album that should draw listeners in and make them feel something. From the opening track, this is apparent, as much from the snarl of the verse as from the fed-up indifference of the chorus. The guitar solo is emotive and supported with a classic Jim Fusco — no, better — bass riff.
Go on: I dare you not to get it stuck in your head.
“Go Back to Him” sets the tone for an album that does what great albums are supposed to do, leading you from highs to lows as you wind your way through its eleven tracks. Perhaps due to his experience with the recording process (and life in general) or an array of new equipment and instruments, Fusco’s vocals are warmer, his guitar effects are more unique and authentic, and the overall sound quality is higher. The volume level is impressive — sometimes to0 much so, as I’ve had to turn down a couple tracks during pronounced, high-pitched guitar parts.
Indeed, longtime Jim Fusco fans will find traces of sounds here and there that are reminiscent of past work, but this time around there is sense of evolution and a clear progression. “Our Love Doesn’t Translate” should clearly be the single, as catchy and pretty as it is, weaving a tale of two lovers who don’t always understand each other or see eye to eye. “A Night Away” is the distortion-drenched track for this album, showcasing just one of many energetic guitar solos and — although he sings “I’d rather be ashamed than proud and angry” — some considerable resentment.
The standout track of the album is “I Got You.” It is placed perfectly on the album, just past the halfway point. It begins as a quiet song, just an electric guitar, then a bass, and finally a lead vocal. When the drums shake and roll into place about a minute in, the song picks up speed and continues its slow assault until just over a minute and a half in when Fusco belts out the first chorus. The lyrics are my favorite on the album; indeed, this would be the first song I would discuss with him if I were to sit down for an interview.
The album closer, “Ruins,” makes a final and interesting statement on the overall theme of the album. Using the metaphor of ancient historic ruins for a relationship, Fusco sings, “There was a time when everyone had admired you from afar… But nature has a way of tearing apart what we’ve built, and if it stands, it’s eroded away.” He leads up to the conclusion in the chorus, “I guess that’s what you call progress.” The song itself is a dark, haunting number, and you won’t find a better mix anywhere on the album.
As “Ruins” fades, you are left with a momentary silence before a quiet hum fills the speakers. Almost a minute later, a guitar fades in to the pop powerhouse that is “Winning You Over.” Not officially included on the album, all I can say is that this song fits firmly into the company of such songs as America’s “Here and Now” and the Wallflowers “Empire In My Mind” — all quality tracks that make you wonder, “Why not include this on the album proper?”
Fusco has said the song was recorded much later than the other songs and didn’t really fit into the album as a whole, which does make sense.
Halfway There is easily his best, most accessible and enjoyable album to date — it is clearly a prime time for Fusco to attract new listeners while impressing his current fanbase.
In his review of Jeff Copperthite’s 2008 album Greenlight, Fusco wrote, “As an independent artist, I’ve found that people don’t take our music seriously. They won’t listen to it in the car like every other album they own. They won’t recommend it to their friends and write online reviews. It just doesn’t happen very often.” Halfway There is an infectious record. I’ve already listened to it a half dozen times in the car alone, not counting just as many iPod listens, and I don’t see a time coming when I will want to take it out. (Well, maybe when the Dylan album is released later this month… :-))
Oddly — perhaps sadly — this level of mastery comes at a time when Fusco, for the first time, has eschewed all the frills, including music videos, enhancedCD content, and even his own original design for the album cover.
This is yet another visible sign of advancement — he brought in talented and accomplished painter Ben Quesnel to design and create an original work that would be used for the cover. If you watch Fusco’s Laptop Session for “Our Love Doesn’t Translate,” you can see the painting in all its glory.
The album isn’t perfect, though. The fourth track, “Write it All,” is both a writing collaboration and a rare duet — his first since My Other Half. Fair warning: that second voice is disconcerting and may lead listeners to frisbee-toss their discs out the windows of moving cars. (Actually, that second voice is me!) In all seriousness, “Write it All” is perhaps my favorite collaboration I’ve ever written and performed — and there have been many — with Jim, and I think fans of MoU will especially appreciate this track.
Another notable collaboration showcased for the first time on this album is with longtime friend Alberto Distefano. “Go Back to Him,” “Our Love Doesn’t Translate,” and “Ruins” were written while on vacation in Italy, and the influence of a new environment with a rich history and unique language is apparent in the writing. His previous album may have been “purely Jim Fusco from top to bottom,” but the injection of a second perspective seems to have sparked new and different ideas and perhaps even a new era for this already established, accomplished songwriter.
If you’ve made it this far in reading my review, there really isn’t much more that can be communicated in words. The bass is bassier. The guitars are crisper, more jangly. The vocals are as ambitious as ever. Truly, this is an album that deserves your attention — it’s only the second great album of 2009, in league with Bruce Springsteen’s Working On A Dream.
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Trust me, you’ll be glad you tuned in.