Better known as the star of such Broadway productions as Tommy and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Michael Cerveris undoubtedly surprised a few listeners with his new album Dog Eared, a decidedly low-key affair. Lacking the grandiosity or showmanship that might be expected from someone who regularly projects his talents to the back row of a packed theater house, the intimacy and earnestness of his solo debut becomes the album’s defining feature.
As Cerveris is also the frontman of alt-rock band Retriever, his decision to go the solo route necessitated calling on a few friends to help him fill out the shadowy textures and serene arrangements of these 12 tracks. In fact, much of the album’s resulting character springs from these contributions. Emboldened by the support of everyone from Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake to noted popsmith Ken Stringfellow, Cerveris swings from the buoyant jangle pop of the title track to the heartbroken solitude of “Snowbound.” Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker stops by to co-write and sing on the uncharacteristically driven “SPCA,” a song that veers a bit too close to the labored drama of emo rock for comfort. Laura Cantrell shares vocal duties on “Two Seconds,” molding the song into an even more solemnly quieting rendition than the version on her debut.
No matter how impressive his gifts are, it feels like Cerveris is in audition mode here, playing understudy to Elliott Smith with fairly indistinctive results. Granted, Cerveris is not nearly as evocative a writer as the sadly departed Smith, a fact made obvious by the more inventive imagery of the Bob Pollard-penned “Drinker’s Peace.” The album’s mood gets a bit heavy at times. And moments like the simply written, hushed space rock of “Golden”—its seasick guitar lines draped over a Pink Floyd-ish mellotron hum—add much-needed textural variation.
As the album is the story of his broken heart, the vision is ultimately Cerveris’ sole possession. But while his talents are evident, he fails to display them in sufficiently bold strokes.