Album of the Day: John DeNicola – The Why Because

Posted by Greg on Nov 5, 2019 in Music |

Oh, nostalgia. If ever there’s a reason to listen to aging rockers, the nostalgia factor might be at the top of the list. John DeNicola is an artist who has lived most of his life in the shadows of others. But his songs, they’re as iconic as ever.

Foremost of those is Eric Carmen’s ubiquitous “Hungry Eyes” and Jennifer Warnes’ “I’ve Had The Time Of My Life,” both of which are from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. Each of those songs make an appearance on DeNicola’s debut solo album The Why Because and both of them are as solid as ever. The former has a pronounced synth vibe and the entire thing feels celestial, swirly and cylindrical. Eric Carmen might have had better vocals but DeNicola’s 2019 arrangement trumps the 80s ballad. Similarly, “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” is far more muted and restrained than the ubiquitous single and features strong vocals from both DeNicola and Cassidy Ladden. Aided by an upright bass, a horn section and a sterling arrangement, “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” might actually be the strongest song on the album. For reasons unknown, DeNicola stops the song at the three-minute mark and sends the album off into the sunset just as the song was picking up steam.

Aside from those two nostalgic singles, the other highlight of The Why Because is “In God’s Shadow” a song recorded by John Waite for his best-selling album Temple Bar. In DeNicola’s imagination the song becomes a six-minute folk ballad that is spartan, warm and comforting. Buttressed by mellotron, cajon and clarinet, “In God’s Shadow” rises on the wings of beautiful guitar work and a cinematic veer towards the song’s latter half. Possessing a distinct Don Henley vibe, “In God’s Shadow” is timeless, important and deeply rewarding.

As for the rest of the lot? It’s a mixed bag.

Album opener “You’re The Only One,” which was recorded by country singer Steve Holy in 2002 for the film soundtrack Avenging Angelo sounds as far removed from country as possible. Beginning with some gorgeous falsetto, the song moves in a Neil Young-esque direction before yielding to a horn and string section. By the time the song ends, the entire thing feels a bit too yacht-rock and a bit too 70s AOR.

“Everything You” is sun-drenched and features stirring vocals from Ladden again. Doe-eyed and open-hearted, “Everything You” sounds like another song tailor-made for a film soundtrack. Ostensibly a song about fatherhood, the song is gooey and warm and at times skippable. DeNicola’s falsetto returns on “People Make the World Go Round” and despite a wurlitzer, marimba and both a string and horn section, the entire thing feels too sedate, too self-indulgent and an absolute miss. While the message of the song is something worth celebrating, the song itself feels like sleepy medical waiting room fodder.

On the contrary “Brand New Day” is a near eight minute epic that begins with an ambient synth and a minute-long instrumental riff to start. Ostensibly a nod to both Pink Floyd and the apocalypse it is a song that features a decent chorus but never feels current. Sounding dated is indeed quite in vogue these days, but what “Brand New Day” offers just feels too gimmicky. If the song has a highlight it comes in the form of a searing blues guitar solo at the 3:30 mark from Zander Kennedy. Nearing two minutes in length, it’s one of the more inspired solos we’ve heard this year. But then again, that doesn’t say much, as the guitar solo has gone the way of the cassette tape.

After chasing down the eccentric on “Brand New Day” DeNicola continues that trend with the he Arabian-inspired instrumental “Butterfly.” The three-plus minute piece features a sitar, harmonium, tampura, bells and a clavioline but never once does it feel like a cohesive piece. Instead it sounds like a songwriter noodling around and tracking it to tape just for kicks and giggles. The album’s stock-market like dip continues on the tepid and vanilla “Wait.” Though the harmonies are strong, the entire effort feels saccharine and a bit too gooey. Thankfully though that’s the last of the clunkers.

“All in the Hands of Grace” revisits the Neil Young vocals and has a distinct late 60s folk vibe. Introspective and expertly arranged, it is a gorgeous slice of bedroom pop and one of the best songs on the album. Perhaps the best part of “All in the Hands of Grace” is that it was a song recorded by pop artist Vitamin C for the film St. Patrick’s Day in 1997. That version of the song was wholeheartedly different from what DeNicola does here. The penultimate cut “I Am Not Willing” is a traditional rock song that does sound a bit dated but actually sounds familiar, friendly and worth repeated listens.

On the whole, The Why Because has more hiccups than home runs but the album is not a total loss. In fact, those home runs are all worth revisiting long after the final seconds. That in and of itself is an accomplishment and something worth celebrating.

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