Gavin DeGraw’s debut album cooks up musical comfort food

Gavin DeGraw’s debut album, Chariot, is best classified as what I like to call Good Pop. There’s nothing mass-produced about him; he plays instruments and writes songs (qualities that lately, in and of themselves, can put musicians a cut above). Chariot is musical comfort food, good-naturedly likeable and indifferent to ground-breaking ambition.

Even though Chariot is prime radio material, high-brow rock fans needn’t view the CD as a guilty pleasure. DeGraw’s songs may be pleasant, but they’re not plebian. This combination should work wonders for DeGraw in the same way that it has for artists like John Mayer, who I think has a slight edge over DeGraw in terms of creativity.

On Chariot, DeGraw plays piano and guitar with a standard studio band of backup guitar, bass and drums. He plays both instruments with considerable skill and command, manipulating their juxtapositions to create upbeat songs crammed with appealing hooks and heartfelt ballads. “Chariot” and “Crush” are dominated by buoyant piano, whereas slow songs like “Just Friends” and “Belief” feature cathartic, continually building refrains, bringing to mind a mellower, low-key Elton John. When it comes to guitar, DeGraw can either rock, playing energetic, edgy chords as he does on “Chemical Party” and “I Don’t Want to Be,” or string together sweet little chords, as he does on the calming “Follow Through,” the album’s opening track, and the cheerful “Anyway (Nice to Meet You),” a standout that showcases the best of his musicianship.

DeGraw is blessed with a terrific voice, which wanders from husky and soothing to strong and emotional. His lyrics are easily memorized. For every cringe-inducing mushy snippet, such as “I’ve had other options too/But all I want is you/Girl your body fits me like a glove/And you shower me with words of love,” there are redeeming lines like “Your favorite fruit is chocolate-covered cherries/and seedless watermelon/nothing from the ground is good enough.”

Then there’s the hilarious turn of phrase in “Chemical Party,” a happily-buzzed party anthem with kick: “You’re just too high to see the point/You think your name is Pass the Joint.”

In some ways, though, DeGraw’s music is disappointing, largely because its good qualities are not better. Chariot is pleasing, but not interesting. None of the tracks contain hidden surprises. I was left with the impression that DeGraw could have pushed himself a little harder. Chances are, however, that this won’t be a problem for DeGraw, who appears on the brink of success. He seems deserving, too, having paid his dues in the traditional way of faux-beatniks and starving artists.

The 25-year-old DeGraw has been singing and playing piano since he was eight; he played in cover bands throughout high school and began writing his own songs shortly after graduation. After a semester at Ithaca College on a music scholarship, the grind of academia began to restrict and hamper his songwriting. DeGraw transferred to the celebrated Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he played shows both with a band and as a solo act. After a year at Berklee, he moved to New York City in 1998 and made all the right moves, playing a regular circuit of clubs and garnering small but word-spreading audiences.

During an open-mic at Wilson’s on the Upper West Side, DeGraw so impressed the crowd that Debbie Wilson, the owner, almost immediately offered to sign as his manager. From there, DeGraw began to play shows for larger audiences and was offered a deal by Warner/Chapell. In a move sure to endear him to purists, DeGraw initially turned down the big-name record company because he didn’t feel ready to sign. Here’s an anomaly: he wanted to develop more as an artist before making a commitment. Eventually, in 2002, DeGraw signed a deal with J Records.

DeGraw’s history shows that he genuinely enjoys making music. In a contemporary music scene dominated by TRL, ephemeral youth celebrity, compulsive name-dropping and air-brushed personality, DeGraw’s sense of ownership is not only heartening, but also suggests staying power. The teenagers on the airwaves may wear enough makeup to look legal, but their outer polish belies inner immaturity. If DeGraw is willing to invest this much effort in his first album, imagine what he’ll do to make sure his sophomore album is of equal quality, not rushed to completion Jack Johnson-style while the ink of his name is still wet on the pages of Rolling Stone.

A talent like DeGraw has the ability to carve his own niche. Think Rufus Wainwright without the cynicism, John Mayer without the baby-pink bubblegum, Billy Joel without the unfortunate facial hair.

DeGraw has yet to establish his reputation, but the future looks bright. In “Follow Through,” Chariot’s first single, DeGraw starts with a question: “Oh, this is the start of something good, don’t you agree?” Why yes, Gavin, I do.

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