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CD Review: (No) Change in the House of Damo

New Damien Rice Heats Up to Lukewarm

By Sarah Dupuis
ASSOCIATE ARTS EDITOR

Damien Rice

9

Produced by Damien Rice

14th Floor Records

Prejudice and precedent work together as a cunning tag team. These two nouns have tricked millions of unsuspecting consumers into spending their hard-earned bucks on mediocre (at best) sequels, second novels, and sophomore albums. The newest push? Damien Rice’s second full-length album, 9. The latest victim? None other than myself.

So here’s the precedent. Rice, an Irish songster best known for his role in orchestrating the soundtrack to Mike Nichol’s 2004 film “Closer,” has been writing and performing his original music since his days in the rock band Juniper. His first full length album, O (2003), with songs well known for their frequent appearances in television and film sound tracks, was the sort of feel-good folk album that gloriously united soccer moms and indie kids on the new music front. Featuring soft acoustic guitars, gorgeous cello lines, mellow drums, and relaxed harmonies between Rice and fellow vocalist and bandmate Lisa Hannigan, O served as a successful vessel for Rice to carry his often sexually-toned songs into the mainstream, while also demonstrating his potential for releasing some darker-toned material. His follow-up, an EP entitled B-Sides (2004), showed off a sampling of songs outlining infidelity, heartache and generally unhealthy living, all underscored with Rice’s familiar acoustic strum and Hannigan’s smooth harmonies. “All right,” I thought, “Damo (as Rice is affectionately known among fans) is taking a step in the right direction!” Upon simple observation of his last two releases, I expected improvements upon Rice’s old formula in his newest album. Simply put, I expected 9 to kick some folk ass.

Maybe my own prejudice got in the way. Rice is an excellent showman, which could perhaps be the dominant factor that pushed me to purchase 9. I saw him on tour with Fiona Apple last year, and his live performance was captivating. Stunning. High energy, high emotion. Rice put on one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen, and the new material he played seemed like a further exploration of all my favorite parts of O.

Was I blinded by love? It’s possible. After months of defending Rice’s new material against those who called it boring, I finally purchased 9 and gave it a thorough listening. Scratch the a; I gave it a good dozen listenings, and what I found was an inoffensive album that was thoroughly tolerable yet quite clearly stagnant. Rice’s passively aggressive vocals certainly take a less traditional turn in the opening track of 9, a confessional tune which also prominently features Hannigan’s solo voice. The rest of the album then wavers uncertainly between radio-friendly pop folk tunes and harsh, melancholic rock songs that end with Rice caterwauling in either agony or orgasm.

So is 9 a good album? To put it obtusely, it’s not a bad one. Has Rice evolved? He’s taken a step, but it seems to be more of a crab-walk than a forward leap or a regression. 9 stands, but it stands on those two legs I described earlier: prejudice and precedent. I look forward to the next time Rice creates something that can stand wholly on its own.

Those interested in catching Rice’s live performance will have their opportunity next Monday, Dec. 11 at 6:30 p.m. at the Orpheum Theatre.