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Album review: Sam Billen’s ‘Places’

Sam Billen, "Places."

Sam Billen.

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You can buy “Places” at sambillen.bandcamp.com or you can download the digital album through iTunes, Amazon and other major digital music retailers.

Special to Ink

Sam Billen of Lawrence navigates a tricky path on his new LP, “Places.” Especially in the contemporary indie-pop world, there’s a vanishingly thin line between sweet and sticky, wistful and maudlin, charming and twee. His maturity as a songwriter and innate musicality keep him firmly on the right side of those divides throughout the album’s nine contemplative and often lovely meditations on childhood and what might have been.

Billen’s sound has morphed through the years, and today it’s thoroughly au courant with its gentle guitars, precise vocal harmonies and swelling beds of sound. It’s a little Fleet Foxes, a bit of Eels, a snip of Flaming Lips, but altogether more intimate and personal.

The first track, “Saltine,” sets the stage for what’s to come with a quiet piano figure repeating as Billen’s multi-tracked vocals recall staying at home sick as a child, eating crackers and passing the time with jigsaw puzzles. In the background, an indistinct burble (A bowl of Rice Krispies with fresh milk? A glass of 7-Up?) mixes with a subtle swell of instruments that build into a shimmery almost-crescendo, holding back purposefully as the song segues into the even quieter “An Interference.” That song also undulates and rises in intensity in a more conventional pop-song mold as Billen sings to an unknown object of his affection, “I can’t get that far without you.”

“Choices” is a pretty instrumental built on a muted piano with quiet horns, acoustic guitar and even a bit of tubular bell and squeezebox. The intro to “It Is Not a Lie” channels the Beatles’ “Blackbird” a bit, though the song immediately takes flight in a different direction as soon as the thick, sweet vocals kick in. Closer “Come Clean” flirts with classic rock again with its indirect but unmistakable echoes of Pink Floyd, especially “Welcome to the Machine’s” urgent and plaintive vocal cries and synthesizer buzzes.

The track “A Light Went On” also appeared on the various-artists Christmas collaboration that Billen oversaw last year, but “Places” isn’t a holiday album. It’s a meticulous and disciplined concept album (in a gorgeous, die-cut fold-apart CD edition package — highly recommended). But don’t roll your eyes in anticipation of pretense. There isn’t a moment of artifice here.


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