Wading through the music scene’s waters as a singer-songwriter is tough. Women have it hard enough, trying to live up to examples set by Joni Mitchell or Kate Bush. But men have a whole other caliber of legend to be dealing with: that string of gone-too-soon cases including Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley, and Elliott Smith. Add to this the sheer number of buskers trying to break out, especially in a city of strivers like Los Angeles, and the odds are stacked against Ferraby Lionheart. He makes music mostly by himself, and he regularly plays L.A. clubs like Hotel Cafe and Tangier, which are thick with aspiring troubadours. With his debut full-length, Catch the Brass Ring, Lionheart turns in a diamond in a field flush with mediocre talent.
Lionheart opens up his sound nicely here in comparison to the simplicity of his self-titled EP from last year, recorded mostly in his own apartment. Catch the Brass Ring features fleshed-out backing, strings, and horns. He tactfully keeps all the new sounds from burying him under a pile of, in the words of fellow Angelenos Silversun Pickups, “well thought out twinkles.” The heart of the music is still Lionheart’s ace songwriting, with lines delivered by his voice, which is sometimes warbly, sometimes wavering, but always winning.
Brass Ring‘s short intro, “Un Ballo Della Luna,” floats on soft strums that seem to come from a thirties transistor radio. In fact, an old-time vibe runs through most of the album, which Lionheart even addresses with the line “I was born a world ago” in “Small Planet.” No surprise here, as he cites Cole Porter and Judy Garland as influences and often sounds like present throwbacks M. Ward and Becky Stark. “Vermont Avenue” could be coming from a street-corner musician both musically and lyrically, as Lionheart, again with just spare guitar, moans lyrics seemingly ripped from John Fante novels: “We don’t have a dime between us/ We can make a meal of dust/ Mary’s in the market mural/ Vendors on the sidewalk circle.”
Lionheart is good at switching between guitar- and piano-dominated songs, and the latter dominates on “The Car Maker,” a standout among standouts. He again goes with the “L.A. is just too hot and hard to deal with” state of mind, singing, “I’m tired of trying/ Who am I working for?” and, “It’s not I don’t see, it’s that I don’t wanna see/ It’s not I don’t know, it’s that I don’t wanna know.”
Catch the Brass Ring‘s one fault is that it ends on a bad note: “Put Me in Your Play.” The song is exactly what its title indicates — Lionheart singing to a playwright flame of his, telling her that if he can’t be in her life, she can at least put him in her new work. That’s Counting Crows territory right there. But one strikeout on a debut album of eleven songs still leaves Lionheart with quite a batting average. If he keeps it up, Los Angeles might just have a new poet laureate.