Ask anyone who knows me and they will probably be unlikely to tell you that I really enjoy singers with unique voices. Of course, that says more about the quality of the relationships I keep than anything else. It is true though. I do quite enjoy singers with interesting vocals – Mark Morrison, Bryan Adams, Melanie Chisholm, Ozzy Osborne, etc. It is fortunate for me, then, that I recently came across a Pianist/Singer named Nelson Rokke while attending an open mic night at my favorite coffee house. It wasn't the best of events, to be honest. I came in late as the first performer was halfway through her set. She was good, competent on the piano and her voice wasn't half bad either. It went downhill from there… Next, some religious nut, a proselytizer to the core by all appearances, sang two really good songs before breaking into an overtly religious hymn of some kind. I, of course, wasn't going to endure that so about twenty seconds into his last song I popped in my headphones and put on Shelley Segal until he finished. Then some girl who was somewhat competent with her electric wasted about twenty minutes of our time with less than spectacular renditions of classic Metallica and Megadeth songs. I recall having commented to the barrista that I could play Metallica better than she could… True or not, it is incidental. What matters is that Nelson saved the day with a few good songs before the host, Richard, closed out the evening with an excellent rendition of 'House of the Rising Son' by The Animals.
I, of course, promised Nelson that I would look into his album when on my way out the door. Sad for me, he doesn't have hard copies available. Much like books, I enjoy being able to hold a physical copy of a musical composition as I listen to it. Call me old-fashioned… Given that, I persuaded a friend to download his album for me so I could evaluate it in full. You can find it yourself on CDBaby for less than ten dollars. His vocal melodies are strongly reminiscent of James Blunt with a little Peter Gabriel thrown in for flavor, and they mix so well with solid piano work that puts your mind to something akin to Five for Fighting or a smooth jazz version of Henry Mancini, perhaps even Bob Seger in certain places. His bio suggests that he was mildly coerced into playing piano at a young age but that could be a mere bit of facetiousness on his part. He seems to have made good by his training regardless. The stand-out tracks from his eponymous album are 'Better For You' and 'Shy Girl With A Smile' but there isn't a song on the LP, I think, that isn't well composed in some way. His weakest point is his lyrical ability, in my estimation. He speaks mostly of contemporary issues pertaining to life and interpersonal relationships which, though most people could probably relate to them, don't really interest me all that much. Despite the overall weakness in his lyrical ability, a few of the songs have interesting hooks that keep them fresh in your mind, much like Roxette from the 1980's.
The album starts on a firm note with a song called 'Want It All' that evokes, quite nostalgically for me, classic television themes like Hill Street Blues or Cheers in the first moments. Stylistically, it is a steady jazz piece that speaks of certain struggles in life and urges us to not fall prey to the despair that can come from these struggles. At least I think that's the message here. Like I said before, lyrically the compositions aren't that inspiring. What makes this song good is that it is steady and makes for a great opening track. To use an example, It would be as if Breaking Benjamin opened an album of Iron Maiden covers...done by Iron Maiden...This is followed with the first of my favorites - 'Better For You' - which is a soft lament about the pain and regret of a failed relationship. I can relate well to this song given that my own journey through the tar pits of the land of love and lust is scattered with many perplexing 'what happened' moments. The composition isn't that complex, just a series of masterful vocal arrangements over piano with some subtle drums and bass in the mix. It works well, though, given that a more complex orchestration might have overwhelmed the heartfelt nature of this song. If I had to compare this song to a classic, I might call it a stripped down homage to 'Don't Cry' or 'November Rain' by Guns 'N Roses. If you only buy one song from the album, I recommend this one.
Track three is a song called 'Web of Lies' and is a not-so subtle condemnation directed at a woman who has treated a guy poorly despite the effort he has put into the relationship. I can relate to this song as well given that I've been neglected emotionally in the past. What turns me off here, though, is the uneven mix of the song overall. Now, I've been around long enough to know that not everything on an independent release is going to be perfect but the vocals overwhelm the music in places to an almost painful degree. It's sad, really, because this song would be a solid #2 to follow the previous track if not for these technical deficiencies.
The next track 'Back to You Again' has some of the uneven mix vibe from the last track in the first moments but it settles into a solid groove that evokes for me Michael Bublé, at least as far as his song 'Haven't Met You Yet' is concerned. There are also vague shades of Enya's Orinoco Flow in the intro, stylistically at least. And though Nelson stays relaxed here when compared to Michael, the purity of sound and emotion here is just as honest and heartfelt. I could easily see Nelson on the same playlist rotation with Michael were this song given the same degree of professional attention. This is probably one of the better lyrical offerings on the album but it is subtle in effectiveness.
To say that 'Out of Here' is lively is an understatement to say the least, at least when measured against the rest of the LP. It starts with a Latin-esque percussion intro reminiscent of certain 80's acts like The Jets or Miami Sound Machine. Any similarities to these acts ends there, though, as it settles into a solid samba beat (at least what I call a samba beat) covered by some very harmonious piano work. I'm not sure to what I should compare the piano work but the closest I can come at the moment is The Four Seasons in their later years or Bob Seger on his 'Night Moves' track. Lyrically it is a simple love song with more of Nelson's vocal mastery. It's not Shakespeare by any means but if you buy more than one track from the album, make this a second or third choice. It has solid rhythm and is an easy song for dancing with your best girl.
'Shy Girl With A Smile' is another entry in the renowned catalog of 'simple but powerful' ballads that line the foundation of music history. At least it should be. It is a simple love song written from the perspective of a love-struck guy in an academic setting. This gives the song a naive aspect but there are subtle musical allusions to Beatles tunes like 'Hey Jude' or 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' that make it very enjoyable. One could even say it has a magical quality in the same vein as John Lennon's 'Imagine'. My only complaint here would be that the musical rests at the 3:18 mark give the lead-out an awkward feel but it hardly matters given the power Nelson has put into this tune. Another must-have track in my opinion.
Nelson gets a little New-Wave on track seven 'Really Happy' but not so much that it sounds like a direct homage to anything from said musical era. Perhaps he comes close to Howard Jones but I would have to review more of Jones' work to be sure. Nelson's piano work, as always, gives the track it's own flavor as the song makes subtle allusions to the synth-driven sounds of the early 80's. The lyrics caution against wasting one's time on meaningless pursuits but the song could easily stand on its own absent any vocals. Not my favorite track but still well composed by any measure.
The last track – 'You Can't Deny That' – is a somewhat repetitive lament about a woman who isn't the most competent and is struggling with the process of aging. At least that's the impression I get as I listen. The piano is underscored with a synth drum beat that, though it serves as a solid anchor, isn't really that interesting. It's not the most entertaining way to end an album but I have heard worse. At least Nelson keeps it consistent with solid vocals and piano work.
All in all, I would say that Nelson Rokke has produced a fine album worthy of a place in any music lover's collection. It is a very relaxing album that one could easily enjoy with a glass of wine. I, myself, have imbibed at least a bottle's worth as I've sat and listened over and over, trying to sort out the proper words to use in describing his work. If you enjoy music as much as I do and are interested in a singer with interesting vocals, and a damned fine piano technique as well, Nelson Rokke is one to watch.