The debut solo release from singer/songwriter Conor Gains is likely to spread his reputation further than anything thus far in his brief public life and there are ten good reasons for it. Gains wrote nearly a hundred songs over a three year period in preparation for this project and, as a result, there’s not a single instance of filler to be found hearing this release. This doesn’t over-exert in that direction, but Compass does feel like a conscious swing for the fences, to use a baseball metaphor, thanks to the unabashed way Gains shakes up arrangements and blends multiple musical styles together over the course of the album and, often, in a single song. Compass will likely stand for some years to come as a representative of the best Gains produced during a particular artistic period and it’s an intensely human effort that’s unlikely to ever feel or sound dated.
Despite the unqualified excellence of Conor Gains’ singing, he makes frequent and excellent use of backing and harmony singers throughout the entirety of Compass. Their chorus responses to his singing on the opener “I Know” further accentuates the R&B/soul influences he’s bringing to the fore here and he definitely catches an urbane city vibe with the tune clearly hinted at during the recording.
He explores more of classic styles with the song “Walking Alone”, but it’s a refreshing part of Gains’ talent that he never sounds like someone diddling with pastiche or merely parroting mightier talents. He gets across melancholy with imagery that seems uniquely his own and never forced. The careening hard jazz-rock workout “Dance Like It’s Your Birthday” has a snap no other song on Compass’ possesses and the chorus is a knockout blow that practically begs for live performance and radio play. It may not be as outwardly “serious” as some of the other songs on this album, but it’s going to be a favorite for many.
“In My Head” follows a familiar template laid down by earlier numbers of building the song up from a few key elements and adding more along the way, but any familiarity is redeemed by a white-knuckled vocal from Gains that hits especially hard with the chorus. “Back to You” has awesome dynamics and sounds, in some ways, like a souped-up modern electric folk song and, in a distinctly different way from other songs, soars even higher thanks to the presence of other voices in the mix.
“Miracle” is a heavy blues that, again, gradually escalates from a bare-bones opening into a much more dramatic, hard-hitting second half. It’s an effective tune regardless and one of the album’s best. Conor Gains wraps up Compass with the song “Mexico” and the comfortable groove both singer and musicians fall into from the beginning is able to be sustained for the full track. This is going to make a lot of lists as one of 2018’s more impressive studio releases thanks to a lot of reasons and it’s certain to garner Conor Gains a stronger following than ever before.
If you are in the area check out the June 2nd show.
-review by Daniel Boyer