I’ll admit it: sometimes my approach to a new album is colored by what I know about it, even before I have any sense of what it sounds like. That was the case upon receiving I hope you are ok., the somewhat idiosyncratically-titled album from Steve McAllister. The packaging itself didn’t provide any useful hints as to the character of the music within: no dude-with-guitar or beardo-with-fiddle etc. And the CD didn’t come with a one-sheet (hey, I know, creating those things costs money).
But upon reading the text on the back of the package, I discovered that the album was mixed by Eric “Mixerman” Sarafin, an ace in his field who just happens to be a fellow resident of Asheville. (He’s also the author of a practical book, Zen & the Art of Mixing.) So, one check in the plus column before even removing the shrinkwrap.
Once the outer plastic was discarded, I opened the digipak gatefold and saw more names I recognized. Dave Gregory (formerly of XTC) plays guitar, slide guitar, organ, Ebow, Mellotron and strings. His presence on a recording session is always, always a good thing. The same is true for guitar wizard Mike Keneally, former Zappa “stunt guitarist” who these days works solo. In addition to guitar, he plays piano, vibraphone and recorders on I hope you are okay.
I didn’t recognize any of the other names (including the artist himself) but that was okay, so to speak. With this quickly-accumulated knowledge, I knew I had to listen. And I was already predisposed to like it, even though I had no clue as to the style of the music I’d soon hear. Prog was my best guess.
Nope, not prog. “Because I Love You Too Much” opens with piano, sampled/scratch percussion and gently picked guitar, plus McAllister’s emotionally expressive voice. If the song reminds me of anything, it’s Zero 7, that trip-hop/downtempo collective. But “Something in the Water” has a twangy guitar arrangement redolent of Creedence Clearwater Revival, crossed with a melodic sense that recalls Fountains of Wayne. Nice, and a surprise after that opening track.
“Roll On” has jazzy gurgling organ and a Stones-y guitar crunch. Some tasty woo-hoo-hoo vocals and Gregory’s slide only reinforce that character, but the song itself isn’t derivative at all. Some otherworldly guitar squalls are buried in the mix (but still give character) on “Get Yourself Together.” the hypnotic beat and McAllister’s close-mic’d vocals create a dreamy feel. The ethereal “No” recalls Elliot Smith, and features some lovely and understated sonorous guitar work.
Gregory’s strings adorn the romantic shoegaze/downtempo of “The 3rd Side of An Egg.” The song brings 10cc to mind, and – as with every cuto n the album – the production and arrangement are superb. The stuttering “On it Like a Narcotic” rocks harder. Quite catchy, it’s among the most radio-ready (is that still a thing?) tune on the disc. “Sunshine Ladies” hearkens back to AM gold pop music.
A thundering piano chord launches “A Letter to My Son.” After that, it settles into a piano ballad vaguely in the style of Billy Joel or Bruce Hornsby. The disc concludes with another piano-centric tune, “Sailor’s Waltz.” McAllister’s breathy vocals and gentle vocal harmonies – plus more evocative string work – end the record on a contemplative note.
As it turns out, the credits on the album didn’t really provide a useful roadmap for the music; it wasn’t at all what I might have expected. But from an open-minded critical perspective, I hope you are okay. is much more than okay.