If you travel in certain circles of bitter musicians who nightly lose a piece of their soul toiling at dives and bars for what often amounts to little more than gas money, you’re likely to hear a few groans when the topic of Berklee trained musicians is broached. Sure, I’ll confess that I might have rolled an eye or two myself in the past. But it doesn’t come from a place of jealousy as much as it relates to a bad rap college-taught musicians have been branded with over the years. It usually goes something like, “Yeah they may know their instrument, but they don’t play with any feeling. It’s all academic; no heart – no soul – no street smarts.” And like most stereotypes, that one overgeneralizes by pointing to a small constituency of players. In fact, if one wanted to illustrate a Berklee Education put to good use, they need look no further than to the career of one such alumni, New England’s own Eric Barao.
Barao was a co-founding member of local perennial power-pop favorites The Cautions. Back in 2006, while reviewing their then-current release, I declared them “whimsi
cal tunesmiths,” and for good reason. What I didn’t realize at the time was the source of that songwriting acumen. With his eponymous debut solo release, appropriately entitled Eric Barao, his gifted song-constructing abilities are such that they could make even the most cynical, curmudgeonly music fan sing along with delight.
The CD kicks off with the frenetically infectious “On Holiday,” a jaunty, bouncing piece of pop goodness, which will leave the listener singing the refrain long after the disc is safely back in its jewel case. Barao’s strongsuit is undoubtedly his quirky turning of a phrase, which is apparent throughout: “Eight O’clock the hotel bar’s loud, the senior sales department took control of the crowd.” Barao invokes a softer approach on the subtly Lennon-esque track “Trying Too Hard.” Replete with mellotron “strings” and some very tasteful guitar work, the track features a haunting melody from Eric: “Your friends and my friends don’t mix, they try to hurt us with their dumb politics, maybe I’m just trying too hard.”
With a beautiful opening slide guitar part that sounds as if it came from George Harrison himself (apologies for repeated Fab referencing), “New World” is clearly a standout track. On it, Barao conjures up a slice of wry social commentary: “Let the polar ice caps drift and drive your hybrid off a cliff, they’ve found a new solution – Let’s line the streets to point and shoot a million aerosol can salute to a new Earth.”
After several nonstop listen-throughs of the album, it’s quite evident that Eric has spent a great deal of his life learning the magic formula that goes into making a great record. Songwriting aside for the moment, Eric Barao as a complete piece of work sounds rich, warm and dense, yet all the while retains the mandatory high-gloss of today’s pop records. One would imagine this dichotomy is due in no short measure to the production team Barao amassed for the project. The enlisted control room sidemen includes Ducky Carlisle, whose mixing credits include blues legend Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, Eddie “Knock On Wood” Floyd, and the album’s producer Bleu, who’s written songs for the likes of Selena Gomez, the Jonas Brothers and Hanson.
It’s no surprise that Barao has had his songs used in national commercials and major studio movie releases such as the hilarious Balls of Fury (a must-see flick, if for no other reason than Christopher Walken’s role as the criminal mastermind Feng.) Talent this big does not go unnoticed very long. If public taste ever returns to its collective senses and starts rewarding artists for things like clever songwriting and strong production value, Eric Barao should be a household name before long.