Stephen Fretwell is another in a long line of British singer songwriters who sound like they really should get out more. His slow-motion, cerebral, occasionally claustrophobic songs are effective in small doses but over the course of an album can become tiresome. So why is it that I find myself sorta liking Magpie?
Maybe it’s because in addition to the dull shades of David Gray heard on tracks like “Bad Bad You, Bad Bad Me” and “Lost Without You,” the album also makes room for the beautiful solo acoustic “Emily,” a heartfelt tune that really connects on which Fretwell’s voice ascends to a gorgeous falsetto. Perhaps it’s the way Fretwell weaves a nicely detailed lyric around a Neil Finn-like chorus on “New York.” There’s also “What’s That You Say Little Girl,” an intense, purposeful ramble with echoes of Bob Dylan and Jeff Buckley. Fretwell even tries out a bit of Dylan’s vocal phrasing and some wheezy harmonica on “Brother.” It’s clear on “Rose” that, like his fellow Englishman Ed Harcourt, Fretwell has also listened to his share of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits records. And on “Do You Want to Come With?” he affects a gruff, Nebraska-era Springsteen style vocal.
Ultimately, Magpie has a few too many similar-sounding songs with flowing, noodly piano and brushed drums. But the songs that break the mold here make Fretwell worth keeping an eye on.
Stephen Fretwell: www.stephenfretwell.com