Goh Nakamura's first album Daylight Savings, while strictly pleasurable, was most notable for convincing San Francisco that our homegrown singer-songwriting could keep up with Zach Braff's hungry playlist. Full of melancholy nice-guys-don't-get-the girl maunderings and Beatles-influenced chord progressions, Savings even contributed its title song to an ensemble romance soundtrack. Yes it did.
There's only so much falsetto and good songwriting a girl can take, so I'm thrilled to find Nakamura's second album, Ulysses, branching out in every way, without abandoning his well-established virtues. In fact these are stronger and hardier in service of the songs. We still have the steel-stringed brightness, the non-gratuitous chord changes and unpredictable melodies. And Nakamura's silver-edged voice has limbered up and timbred down; it's not just a delivery device anymore, but a pleasure of its own. He's engaged a full band without seeming to encounter most of the usual pitfalls of transferring a solo practice into a collaborative one. His arrangements test the limits of some of his songwriting against a range of styles, from the obvious folk rock, to bossa nova, even pushing into the prog-rock-inflected. They don't all work out -- the folk rock works best here, as you might expect -- but you're glad to hear him do it.
Thus we get to hear Nakamura pushing stylistically and thematically. The title suggests a concept album, and it almost works as one. Although the songs are still centered around relationships, listeners are allowed to organize the songs into an Odyssey, with a push here and there from the title track, from a musical interlude called "Telemachus," and from sprinklings of quasi-classical allusions. The intention seems to be that the singer is a modern-day Ulysses on a years-long journey in search of home and love, but the moments of Penelopean perspective -- especially in the lovely "Suitcase," which sends a lover off on a journey with echoes of "Leaving on a Jet Plane" -- play more strongly into the theme, and let a lot of air into the narrative.
Nakamura has always loved wordplay. Now, prodding his cleverness less, his lyrics turn up more of the intuitive verbal connections that work most powerfully in pop music. I don't like to quote lyrics outside of their musical context, but my current favorite, "Somewhere," namechecks moments from Nakamura's historical landscape of folk and rock while describing their emotional effect. The "somewhere" is the own private place the singer is searching for among these pop-classic islands. Very Odyssean.
Of course, Nakamura makes a nine course meal of his influences, and at times they are only half-digested. It may be the zeitgeist, but there's way too much Elliott Smith here; putting in strains of everybody from Clapton to James Taylor -- or Suzanne Vega -- doesn't meld him away. There's murkiness and turgidity in Ulysses, too, as befits a near-concept album. The title track is too heavy for its surroundings and exhausts its own lyrics; a strangely portentous passage at the end of "Flowers" sucks all the warmth out of the song; and the residual nice-guy resentment of "Shoulder" would be better left off future albums. But again, the stumbles are those of someone aiming high and tripping over his shoelaces, and not of someone who doesn't know what he wants to do, or what he's doing.
And in the final measure: there are songs here that I wish were meadows, so I could lie in them all day. I've racked up quite a playcount for "Somewhere," "Suitcase," "Sarah Rose," and "Section of Sky," and there are a couple more I'm eyeing in a friendly manner. Consider this a strong recommendation for your iPods.
Ulysses is available for purchase from CDBaby. The artist will also be offering a free download of a medium quality recording, or a "fan package" with extra songs from some of his favorite bands on his website in a few weeks.