Chris Van Cott
"Little Puppy"

(Self-Released 2004)Chris Van Cott - Little Puppy

Instrumentally, Chris Van Cott's "Little Puppy" follows the classic singer-songwriter tradition of an artist standing alone with just his voice and his instrument. Apart from the occasional overdubbed backing vocal, tambourine, or lead guitar lick, there's not much else here besides Chris and his guitar, leaving the songwriting and the lyrics as the only things to consider. Thus, getting on with it...

The opening song "Honey" sets expectations for the rest of the album quite high, borrowing a page from the Paul Simon playbook by taking the stuff of ordinary American life ("I need a mocha latte / I need a palm pilot "¦") and somehow elevating it compelling musical drama with a soaring, sighing refrain ("and this is a tragedy / this is a fantasy"). The extremely brief "Up to You" keeps up the momentum with edgy lyrics worthy of Jonathan Richman or The Frogs ("In ancient times / they'd drill a hole into your head / to help you wake up from the dead") and a nervous, trembling vocal that comes unhinged at the end with a truly unsettling howl. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, things take a dive on the third song and never fully recover. "Got Me" plays like a tossed-off George Michael love ballad stripped of any spicy gay subtext ("You've got me walking on clouds / So soft it must be freedom / All I see are skies / So blue I can't explain"). "My Favorite" sees Cott devolve into one of those earnest, guitar-strumming young men so dewy-eyed over his new girlfriend ("You are my favorite / And nothing will ruin our day"¦you're so pretty / so pretty") that you hope he finds out she's screwing around on him, just so he'll stop singing about how wonderful this person is.

Things pick up a bit on "Show Me", which at first shows disturbing signs of being one of those "Teach Your Children Well" songs giving advice to a young child ("You look up to me"¦ Like I'm a superhero in a little boy's eyes"), but eventually turns around with zingers like "I bought a black t-shirt and so did you" and "You better show me that you can breathe without my hands squeezing your lungs". But this highlight is followed by "S.I. Girl" ("Let's move back east to New York City"), and "On the Island" ("we have it all / with the spring and fall / on the island...we can watch the New York Jets on the island"), which together add two more songs to the mile-high pile of songs praising NYC that make a Chicago boy like me wish the whole damned city would break off and slide into the Atlantic Ocean, already. From there on out, it's more earnest guitar strummage, until "Candy Canes" falls completely over the edge by invoking Rudolf, Santa Claus, and the double-damned New York Yankees in a too-nostalgic-to-be-subversive tale of Christmas materialism.

To use a sports metaphor (Chris seems to be a sports fan, what with all the Jets and Yankees references), this would put Van Cott's songwriting batting average at .250, which is probably enough to make him the best act at the neighborhood java joint, but a long way from assuring him a place in the singer-songwriter hall of fame. Still, the flashes of brilliance ("Honey", "Up To You", "Show Me") suggest that, if he keeps working on his swing, Van Cott could one day hit a home run.


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