Recording music is about exclusion. It takes the same elements as songwriting, but requires a further knowledge of restraint. The margins between success and toiling in anonymity are defined by a musician's ability to open listeners to a fresh experience. Great albums, the ones that define pivotal moments of our lives, are less about reinvention than they are about saying just enough.
For more than a year, Sean Healen has become an expert in omission by tinkering with the nine songs that comprise Floodplain, his new album. Produced by Creed and Puddle of Mud producer, John Kurzweg, the band's lead guitarist and backup vocalist, the album also features Matt Deason on bass and a revolving cast of drummers. The tinkering results in a meticulous 51-minute musical experience that is both engaged with broad ideas and acts of simplicity, sewn into a folk and country rock quilt.
The album begins with the bold "Angel Fire Wings," a track that is more than eight minutes long. It moves steadily with a strong backbeat, occasional vocal lifts and guitar patterns that set a comfortable entry with its sweeping tones.
"Paper Ghost," the album's second track, is one of the band's staple songs during its live gigs. Fully fleshed out in the recording studio, the track reveals Kurzweg's sophisticated sense of arrangement and Healen's lyrical strengths, which are fueled by his unfazed use of sentimental language.
By the third track, "Kiss My," it is obvious we are not dealing with a typical independent release. Sonically, Floodplain is a pop album. It is accessible, catchy and well produced, which is to say that it has a very specific purpose. Its intention is for listeners to sing along with its hooks and phrases or to be enjoyed within a movie soundtrack.
Floodplain is not an obtuse treatise by bitter artists, but a salvo for radio-friendly ears across America. In the case of "Kiss My," this proves to be slightly unfortunate. The track rings with the insincerity and obviousness found in contemporary country-crossover pop. As a vehicle for mass consumption, the track is viable, but compared to its brethren, it lacks depth and imagination.
"Kiss My" reveals a much larger issue in Floodplain as it does with the music industry as a whole. The concept of the "album" has evolved into the concept of the "playlist." Music audiences are now instrumental in shaping the identity of their favorite artists by an increasing ability to cherry-pick songs through online formats. This is a similar premise to FM radio, as "hits" are meant lure listeners to purchase albums. But when you add endless online choices and an over-crowded field of bands vying for the same brass ring, artists such as Healen are often compelled to include tracks, if not shape the entire identity and palpability of albums, for the evolving music market.
Still, in spite of small digressions, Floodplain is not a boilerplate record and punctuates what Santa Fe audiences may already know about the band: It is one of the most engaging, if not the tightest, live acts in town.
The album's strongest tracks lie squarely in the middle of the mix. "Sister, Sister," "Cherry Tree" and "Floodplain" are the spiritually feral songs of the record; they are fiery, soulful and beautifully composed songs, filled with color and curiosity. Most of all, Floodplain allows Healen to make mistakes, but the album remains steadfast by swinging for far off fences. The album is an ambitious effort and a balancing act of raw emotion with broad audience-appeal that signals bigger, perhaps more exciting, things to come.
Sean Healen Band
7 pm Saturday, Sept. 20
Santa Fe Brewing Pub & Grill
27 Fire Place, 505-424-9637