Review: Graham Norwood transparently melancholic on debut

Graham Norwood, “Out of the Sea” (Self-released)

Graham Norwood often sings of pain and disappointments on his debut album, “Out of the Sea,” but at its conclusion he emerges, if not triumphant, ready to face new challenges.

Norwood’s restraint, resonant songwriting and the elegant, mostly acoustic arrangements, which include strings and a vibraphone, make “Out of the Sea” a rewarding if heart-rendering listen.

After spending his childhood in the Bay Area and later becoming a musical sideman based in New York, Norwood’s career was marked by a long hiatus which included marriage, grad school, stints in Italy and Washington, D.C., divorce and the grave deterioration of his eyesight.

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Even if you’re not aware of the biographical details, the transparent, un-self-pitying melancholy of “Out of the Sea” is inescapable.

From the introductory “Hard Times” to closer “Out on the Shore,” the album’s mood swings are minimal and its tone evenly serene. Still, it’s far from 36 minutes of lethargy, as Norwood and his ace backing band, produced by Bryce Goggin, expertly vary the shades of blue.

“Greenfield” is regretful but resolute, a realization that there’s no use soldiering on. It seems of a pair with “Kate’s Song,” whose European airs are also accentuated by a string section and beautiful guitar lines, as Norwood strives to reach closure after a relationship that has left scars all around.

Further proof of Norwood’s proficiency are presented on the album’s only cover, Tim Hardin’s “It’ll Never Happen Again.” The original was drenched in strings but here the spotlight is on a lamenting pedal steel. The song fits seamlessly with Norwood’s own compositions, which is no small feat.

Norwood’s debut shows him to be a skilled songwriter, an expressive yet nuanced singer and a talented guitarist. Here’s hoping the persistent optimism concluding “Out of the Sea” — “You may never be free/But you can swim against the tide” — points the way to a sunnier future and much more great music.

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