Reader, the author apologies in advance. Although this was released in mid-February, with the single “Please” a week earlier, this review arrives on your screen now. It’s not for lack of trying, but when an album is so hard to engage, it’s even harder to write about. Per materials provided by McRae’s label, the impetus for naming and writing The Alphabet of Hurricanes was based on the artist’s own fight with life’s instability, first against perception of being jostled about by a hurricane and then finally by embracing it.
To give Tom McRae credit– he’s consistent. In a career well over a decade now, he’s churned out a number of singles that have easily been dropped into the middle of TV and film soundtracks, eschewing controversiality, all sounding very similar in style (dripping in melancholy), and very many, dull. The Alphabet of Hurricanes attempts to co-opt the perceived glamour of the American West, but fails to capture any of the rapturous grandeur of the pre-industrial expanse.
First track “Still Love You” comes across as a another hum-drum lo-fi single and is utterly forgettable. Which makes the listener ponder: why the 1920s Brooklyn Klezmer music of “A is for” that follows? Just as you are adjusted, it ends. Why so short, Mr. McRae? What was the point of that interlude? Sure, track three (“Won’t Lie”), is a swingy waltz with a mildly cinematic quality to it, but again, the awkwardness of the track transitions detract from cohesiveness. One questions whether that is the intentional manifestation of the instability that McRae was talking about in the album’s inception.
“Summer of John Wayne” sounds vacuous, and lyrically insipid with phrases such as “Reel after reel/playing old soldiers.” Somehow the American hero manages to invoke snoozes. The boredom continues with later tracks “American Spirit” and “Me & Stetson”. The latter very narrowly avoids an embarassing similarity to KT Tunstall’s “Black Horse and a Cherry Tree” in its patter. On the other hand, “Told My Troubles to the River” is single worthy with well-balanced piano. McRae’s history of licensing his songs should continue with “Please”, which has anthemic drumming that could easily push a movie montage (picture: thirty-something woman’s personal self-discovery and stripping off her previous life burdens).
For the most part, it’s a passable album. It doesn’t push limits. The lyrics are mildly interesting but not enough to capture this listener. For someone who has spent so much time in the US, as well as touring with Los Angeles’s own Hotel Cafe tour, McRae still sounds like an Englishman trying to sound like an American folk-singer, without much success. The album doesn’t feel contemporary where other singer-songwriters (like Ryan Bingham, an ex-rodeo bull rider turned musician) have managed to better communicate modern America’s conflicts in predominantly rural areas. You can’t really blame McRae for trying but perhaps it’s not something he should try again.