Rising Mississippi pop/rock star delivers with follow-up to iTunes chart-topping debut.
(Original version published on Southern Senses 03/29/16)*
Nearly two years after his #1-selling iTunes debut, Brookhaven, MS, indie pop/rock wunderkind Sam Mooney is back with his sophomore effort, Find My Way, set for international release April 5, 2016, and I am ecstatic to report it’s been well worth the wait. The record is not so much a departure from Mooney’s previously established style as it is an expansion on that foundation into territory which, for Mooney, was largely heretofore unexplored. As a whole, the project runs in the range of several current pop/rock acts including Eric Hutchinson, Andy Grammer, and Ben Rector but also channels a plethora of other artists and styles both old and new. It’s also worth noting that production here is top-notch and that the EP was mastered by seriously credible Nashville engineer Hank Williams, who boasts mastering credit for a host of hot artists (primarily in the country genre) including Blake Shelton, Zac Brown Band, Florida Georgia Line, and Taylor Swift.
1. “Southern Starlight”
With a smooth, easy, Southern feel to the instrumentation, melody, and vocals and an immediately ingraining titular refrain, “Southern Starlight” is sure to be commercial gold in regard to Mooney’s target audience. This tune is a strong opening track which boasts a solid guitar riff played by Mooney himself. Repeated throughout the song, the riff is simple, catchy, and signature—the trifecta for a commercial project—and is heavily reminiscent of classic “feel good” rock riffs of the ‘70s. In fact, the entire track is “retro-feel-good” (especially with it’s soul-based backing vocals which can be heard throughout the record), yet simultaneously also stays both modern mainstream and indie pop. It’s reminiscent of some of the Dirty Guv’nahs work.
2. “Hard to Miss You”
An “in-your-face” tune with attitude, “Hard to Miss You” is a blues/rock-based track with a 2000s pop/rock bend somewhere near the range of Maroon 5’s “Harder to Breathe.” The track boasts some of Mooney’s best lyrical work to date with parallel rhyme schemes and unique turns of phrase:
“I bet you think your silence
Is the sound of sweet revenge
But your passive aggressive violence
Let’s me know I’m gonna win”
Mooney also makes a very gutsy call for a predominantly commercial pop record by ending the song on a fairly extensive, masterful instrumental jam featuring Mooney slamming away in a triplet piano riff style that has become something of a signature of his.
Track 3, “Name,” is an easy, flirty “love at first sight” tune that’s sure to be a favorite among the incurable romantics in the audience. In keeping with Mooney’s 2000s pop/rock sensibilities, the lyrics are very Train Save Me San Francisco album. Musically, it leans John Legend/soft side of Maroon 5’s Songs about Jane record. That being the case, it’s also the least original out of the bunch for Mooney when compared to the tunes from his first effort, Somewhere in Between. If Mooney’s published catalog were put on a spectrum, “Name” would fall dead center between “Cupid’s Got Me Good” and “Carefree Tonight,” both offerings from his previous release. Not that that’s a bad thing, as both of those songs are solid tracks, but when compared to the other tunes on Find My Way, “Name” is much less of an artistic branch out for Mooney.
4. “Find My Way”
The title track opens with a sound and feel very much in the vein of a Sam Smith or Adele ballad. Further into verse 1, it’s very reminiscent of Gavin DeGraw’s “Soldier” from his Sweeter album. It seems at first glance that this is definitely the most commercial and universally appealing track on the project and ripe for a pop radio single release. Then, Mooney hits the chorus, and it becomes clear this track wasn’t written to play into any mass, teeny pop ballad scheme. Instead, this song seems to have been written as a personal tale of Mooney’s faith—an unabashed “Christian track” right smack dab in the middle of an otherwise secular indie pop release. The move is entirely unexpected and uncompromisingly gutsy, effectively yielding Mooney’s deepest and “meatiest” thematic catalog entry to date. Though there’s nothing wrong with the tales of feel-good flirtations and “good love gone bad” to which Mooney has stuck close through this point, this track is elevated far above the lyrical tropes of its compatriots by the sheer weight of its theme. The lyrics touch on religious and philosophical concepts and questions which philosophers and theologians have been debating for centuries, forming Mooney’s most profound lines yet:
“Soul-searching as if it’s mine to save”
“If I’m on the right path then why am I crying?
Or am a fool to question my role?”
What starts as a track comparable to any number of hit tunes from current mainstream pop ballad acts ultimately ends up being something like a “popier” cut from Christian-oriented alt rock powerhouse NEEDTOBREATHE.
Despite Mooney running the risk of alienating audience members who don’t share his faith or those who just don’t care for contemporary religious musical fare, I think, with Mooney’s huge following in the Southern United States, this track has enormous potential to be a breakout. The chorus, featuring more of those soul-based vocals, this time with a gospel/spiritual quality, is particularly powerful. The track is ultimately a plea for peace and guidance in the midst of uncertainty, and I think that is going to resonate with a large number of listeners.
5. “Mississippi in the Spring”
Something of a piano-driven, hipster pop/folk tune, “Mississippi in the Spring” seems to be a very personal song for Mooney and is just the right amount of sweetness and sappiness to become many Mississippi couples’ personal love song forever. The lyrics here again are very Save Me San Francisco with the track playing akin to “Marry Me” and “Hey Soul Sister” from that record. The minimalistic production is quite different from the rest of the release, yet vastly appropriate for the tune, demonstrating more of Mooney’s diversity as well as his willingness and desire to showcase that diversity.
Ultimately, Find My Way is an extremely well-produced commercial, indie pop/rock affair with enough eclectic influences and unexpected artistic choices to elevate it above its peers and quite possibly above Mooney’s chart-topping debut Somewhere in Between. And though some fans of that previous record might not quite “get” this release as much as, or like it as well as, its predecessor, I think most established followers will embrace Find My Way while new listeners will be quite impressed enough to lookup that debut entry in Mooney’s expanding catalog.
Categories: Pop, Rock, Blues, Jazz, Soul, Folk, Soft Rock, Pop/Rock
*In 2015, Cole Powell and bandmate/wife Brittany D launched Southern Senses, an online publication dedicated to showcasing the best music and cuisine from the Southern United States. With talented site contributors (including Southern rocker J. F. Oakes and restaurateur Christa Reid Neil), the site gained immediate success, attracting the attention of renowned restaurateur Robert St. John and retired NFL tight end Reggie Kelly, among others. Though Powell opted to discontinue the site in 2017, select articles can be found on the Ramblings of a Mad Man blog section of colepowell.net.