Somewhere along the line, “singer-songwriter” went from being a job description to being a genre to being a pejorative. In recent years, it’s suggested a kind of bland acoustic puddle, played by James Taylor acolytes who don’t have his gift for melody; the sort of thing they pipe into cafés that sell 45 different varieties of tea.
But how better to describe Stop Talking, Chris Price’s follow up to his acclaimed 2012 debut Homesick? It’s full up with uncommonly good singing and smart, surprising songwriting. Drawing from a well of pop knowledge, Price constructs melodies that are both sure and unexpected. Every song has a whiff of the familiar, but where an ordinary tune would turn right, Price’s turn left, and just like that, he’s widened the domain of pop songwriting.
The title track strings together three separate melodies which, taken in isolation, wouldn’t sound like they’d fit together. But Price unifies them into a taut line that intensifies throughout the song. On “Algebra In The Sky,” by far Stop Talking’s hardest rocking song, Price’s multitracked Matthew Sweet-style backing vocals weave themselves into an intricate, shifting kaleidoscope of chords.
Price provides all of the (many, many) vocals on the album, shifting timbre and characterization across and within songs. He croons, whispers, wails, and purrs, often in the space of a single line. In less than three minutes of “Hi Lo,” he unleashes an inner Marvin Gaye, opening with a tender falsetto, which transforms into a breathy sigh, which in turn gives way to the anguished pleas of the closing countermelody. Towards the album’s end, he channels the best aspects of the Brill Building and Tin Pan Alley giving “One of Them” and “Just In Time” a whimsy that belies lyrics like “You’re just like one of them/when I thought you were special” and “We showed up just in time/for the end of the world.”
In the hands of a lesser producer, any of these tricks could come off as cloying or overbaked. But Price crafts each song with restraint and wisdom. “Father of the Man,” in which a man puts his aging and increasingly frail patriarch in a rest home, sits atop a fragile guitar-piano-cello arrangement that both suggests the old man’s brittleness and his son’s qualms. To emphasize narrator’s shallowness in “Pulling Teeth,” Price drolly sets a lovely, languid melody against an arrangement that lapses in and out of dissonance. Frequently, Price tips his hat to the giants of early and mid-70s rock that shaped him: Nilsson, Fleetwood Mac, Queen, McCartney (check out the “Band On The Run” guitar that decorates “Man Down”).
Thus far, Price garnered attention as co-producer and producer of comeback records for psych-folk wonder Linda Perhacs and power pop legend Emitt Rhodes, each of whom had lain dormant for more than 40 years. With Stop Talking, he pushes further, reinvigorating the entire singer-songwriter idiom for the 21st century.