Eric Hutchinson Sounds Like This


Aquarian Weekly 9/19/07


Eric Hutchinson wants to be popular and he doesn’t care who knows it. If he can squeeze a little soul, humor or angst into the mix, he’s all for it, but what he really wants is to make pop records that have you singing on the way to the club and dancing once you’re inside.

Eri HutchinsonHutchinson is a rare breed on all counts; a lily white kid who funks like Stevie Wonder and grooves like a young Michael Jackson, a ruffle-haired road warrior with nary a shoulder chip, and a bright, witty, gregarious sort who portrays the role of “lovable loser” in both song and story. He’s a performer who loves to entertain, a songwriter looking for the magic hook, and a serious musician who openly mocks his musicianship.

If you’re looking for another brooding despondent poser go somewhere else. This is a famished 27 year-old who would gladly trade in the starving artist badge of courage for a hit, and if he hasn’t done so with his studio debut, Sounds Like This, a funky, soulful collection of ten wonderfully crafted songs, he’s certainly presented a convincing case.

His sound, which, when pressed, he describes as “acoustic soul, but with a hip-hop influence in the beat.” His stage demeanor is something akin to a vaudevillian hipster, if there is such a thing. His entire sensibility as an artist aims to please. But don’t think you’re getting the usual empty-headed soda jingle shtick either.

“I don’t listen to ‘sit around your apartment and kill yourself’ kind of music,” he muses. “I happen to like a lot of pop music, but pop music these days is something different than what it used to be. When I think of pop music, I think of the Beatles and Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel, and all that really means is that it was popular and everybody liked it, as opposed to Britney Spears and things that nobody really likes but somehow everyone listens to anyway.”

By his own account, Hutchinson has produced his dream record, “a collection of songs,” as he states in his liner notes, “that showcase the kind of music I’ve wanted to make for a long time.” His first full studio effort is pure pop. Sounds Like This doesn’t break ground, nor does it usher in a cultural movement, what it does is force you to bop your head and drum on the dashboard, get off-yo-ass and move your feet. It is an ambitious fusion of musical genres, sweet melodies, and infectious rhythms; all the things that made you dig music in the first place.

On stage, as he was last month at his record release show at the Cutting Room in NYC and will be September 20th at the Knitting Factory, Hutchinson is a pisser. A polished showman who manages to give off a vibe that he’s somehow getting away with murder, Hutchinson moves flawlessly from piano to guitar leading an airtight trio while bemoaning the loss of the sub-let on his Brooklyn apartment and offering up a “Let Eric Hutchinson Sleep On Your Couch Contest.”

Hutchinson’s most endearing quality may be the dissection of his songs immediately after playing them. Take the case of “It’s All Over Now,” one of Hutchinson’s best, which he tells the audience he is sure will be a hit because it’s already been a hit three times before. He then proceeds to play snippets of previous smash hits that sound uncannily like his own and remarkably like each other. He cleverly follows this up with, “Hey, I just realized another song of mine is a complete rip-off of the entire White Album!”

It was this self-deprecating persona – one minute confident troubadour and the next a confused victim of circumstance – which attracted me to Hutchinson’s burgeoning career more than a year ago. That, and I watched him blow Joe Jackson off the legendary Town Hall stage. When we met later that year he told me how he lives for such nights. “I actually prefer the challenge of opening up, especially in the atmosphere of a theater like that,” he enthusiastically recounts. “I love the idea of converting people from having no idea who I am to leaving as fans.”

“If you’re going to see somebody in person, I feel as though you should get a little something extra. I can listen to the cd at home. I want to get a sense of who this person is, which, by the way, I’m not necessarily the person I am on stage.”

Hutchinson’s Cutting Room show needed no converts. The line for the performance stretched out the door and before long the room was alive with an army of young, smiling, clap-along revelers who knew all the lyrics and shouted them out with contagious glee. His most ardent fans, many of whom have been coming to see his solo performances for five years now, not only expect his special brand of biting humor and teasing banter, but they demand it.

“That was something people made very clear to me,” Hutchinson recalls with all seriousness. “When fans found out I was going to start using the band, I had a lot of them come up to me at the shows and say, “Fine, you want to use a band, that’s cool, but you better keep talking between songs.

“I love when some people say to me with disdain, ‘Oh, you’re an entertainer'”, he smiles. “But hey, I’ve got this live Frank Sinatra recording where he does that kind of stuff back at the Sands. If you’re going to see somebody in person, I feel as though you should get a little something extra. I can listen to the cd at home. I want to get a sense of who this person is, which, by the way, I’m not necessarily the person I am on stage.”

The person off-stage is once again a stark contrast to Hutchinson’s smooth “entertainer” bit. He is humbly soft-spoken, even painfully shy with a quiet air of determination. You wonder where he finds the incredibly strong, bluesy voice that jumps from verse to chorus, bending a growl and then soaring into falsetto pitch.

All of these sides are found inside every song in Sounds Like This, which range thematically from one-on-one laments to desperate pleas for connection and quickly into detached third-person storytelling. For all his pop sensibilities, there’s introspection behind Hutchinson’s groove. “I like the idea of having a broad picture,” he says of his lyrics, “and throwing some details in there that allow people, if they’re paying attention, to figure it out.”

When asked about undermining his feel-good ditties with exposés of an illicit affair in “Outside Villanova,” spiritual turmoil in “Oh!,” love affair inertia in “It’s All Over Now,” and recitative break-up fever in “It Hasn’t Been Long Enough,” Hutchinson is candid. “I’ve been actually trying to write more positive songs,” he argues. “I had a girl come up to me after a show in L.A. and say, ‘I really like how all your songs are about how everything sucks.’ I thought, what is the message I’m trying to get across? It is not that everything sucks. It’s that things may not be the way we want, but there’s a way to change it.”

While maintaining a delicate balance between melody-machine and insightful lyricist, Hutchinson is first and foremost a vocalist in both style and purpose. His songs are fueled by an emotional tone that comes from his most vital instrument, which gets a full workout on Sounds Like This.

“The thing I’ve always loved doing is layering the vocals,” he notes. “I don’t consider myself an instrumentalist at all. I play guitar and piano in spite of myself. I thought of them as accompaniment to my main instrument, my voice, so going in the studio is the closest I can come to really riff.”

Sounds Like This, recorded in two studios on both coasts under the direction of two producers, harkens the Motown era, when Rhythm & Blues combined a street slick sheen with a Brill Building glitz and the singer/songwriter placed heart on sleeve in honey-voiced tunes backed with a booming kick. You can hear it in songs like “Food Chain,” as the piano acts as both click-track and backing track beneath Hutchinson’s cool phrasing, and “Rock n’ Roll,” a ska-laced foot-tapper worthy of Sam Cooke’s most cheerful odes to letting loose.

The record’s first two songs, “Okay, It’s Alright With Me” and “You Don’t Have To Believe Me” would fit neatly into any era from Smokey Robinson to Beyoncé, once again, a pop staple.

Hutchinson, an astute observer of music history and a film student in college, understands the components of getting to the gut in a song, tapping into a sentiment and bringing it to the surface. According to his calculations he composed 40 to 50 songs for the record. His love for the craft goes back to his early childhood, and even in the midst of the touring dog days or the conclusion of lengthy chats with journalists, his enthusiasm for it soars. “For as long as I can remember I’ve loved doing music,” he told me, with an emphasis on doing. “It was the only thing that really appealed to me, and I felt like I could make it on my own. But there are definitely times when I say to myself, ‘How did I end up here?’ or ‘Why am I doing this?’ because it’s such a difficult line to walk between art and commerce.”

The origin of that line resides in a record like Sounds Like This, the most unique of all Eric Hutchinson contradictions, a debut album that is as fresh and alive as anything out there, but as familiar and comfortable as your favorite pair of sneakers.

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