In the press materials for Beautiful Strangers, the piano-based quartet the Educated Guess swears allegiance to wall-of-sound pioneers Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and Roy Orbison — not a bad trifecta, although it sets the bar impossibly high. And while no amount of reverb or studio trickery can make four dudes sound like a squadron of studio musicians, the attempts at such romantic grandeur are charming. "Half Heart" begins with Spector's famous and oft-repeated drum beat and even tosses in a nod to Orbison's "Crying" with a triplet of staccato piano chords in the chorus. Band leader Charlie Brumley is a great keyboardist, a good lyricist and a fair singer — his voice gets caught in that middle range that neither rises above the music nor pushes through the mix with force or personality. The classic pop structure of these songs almost demands a strong, clarion-voiced singer (or at least a passable falsetto), and while there is plenty to admire in these songs, you can't help but wonder how they would sound if they were belted out to the heavens, the way they were meant to be. A song like "Entropy" comes right into Brumley's wheelhouse, its echoing piano chords and Born to Run-indebted flourishes creating a perfect setting for his tenor voice.
Any piano-based band has to contend with the inevitable Ben Folds comparisons, and while there's nothing on Beautiful Strangers that overtly mimics Folds' alternately sardonic and heartfelt lyrics, a number of songs ("Flight Over Callous" especially) benefit from big, bouncy bass chords and a few fleet-fingered runs on the upper register. The next track "Sleep Complex" is more open and dreamy, and big, creamy chords and a guest vocalist Hope Goodin add some sweetening to Brumley's vocals. While the Steinway grand piano fills up most of the tracks, the rest of the Educated Guess have a chance to shine. Brian Pincus' spare, martial drumming opens "Reconciling Dreams" before unfolding into a polyrhythmic spree. Guitarist Jordan Rogers finally gets to cut loose on fiddle-and-banjo driven "Latent Prayers," and his crystalline plucks drop a little bit of that Bakersfield sound on the track. While its Brumley's show, he has both the modesty to make him a charming leader and the ambition to push these songs towards the broad horizon of big-sky American rock & roll.
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