If you were judging the band by its handle, you may assume Chapel Hill's Nathan Oliver is another run-of-the-mill singer-songwriter fresh out of school. And, though Nathan Oliver is indeed fronted by a Nathan (with the last name White), he comes flanked live and on tape by Mark Lebetkin and a cast of characters long associated with Schooner (bassists Tripp Cox and former Ticonderoga third Wes Phillips), The Rosebuds (drummers Lee Waters and Matt McCaughan), or both (producer Zeno Gill and drummer Billy Alphin). Such musical inbreeding happily shapes Nathan Oliver's self-titled debut as that of an actual band, not some ol' songwriter backed by a band of hired guns.
The nine originals—plus a moody retooling of the Ace of Base hit "All That She Wants"—all fit vaguely as indie rock, but they cover quite a bit of ground in 28 minutes. The band borrows bits from many but changes the template enough to offer up something new more often than not: "I Lived in a Crater" is reminiscent of classic Beck, with ukulele, keys and a wash of static providing simple but unique backing for a call-and-response paean to the hermitic lifestyle. It could have been penned by Wayne Coyne. Meanwhile, "Old Slow Poke" careens through sudden tempo shifts and diabolic howls, both tacked atop the back of a furiously strummed acoustic. Think early Bright Eyes, but with clean electric guitar solos lifted from Luther Perkins. Among mostly breezy tracks, it's the record's most aggressive point. Opener "Black Ship White Sails" precedes it with a thinly veiled sinking-ship metaphor decorated with acoustic strums, pounding percussion, squalling guitars and a dash of exotic flavor from Middle Eastern reeds. "State Lines Pt. 1" follows, as White harmonizes with a steel guitar for the record's best melody.
Nathan Oliver doesn't grab immediately with juicy pop hooks, aggressive instrumentation or big chances. Instead, its appeal unfolds slowly, offering familiarity mixed with a bit of innovation, like your best friend coming back from a summer spent at camp.
Ed.'s note: Nathan Oliver was originally released last year, at which point we neglected to review it, although the song "Stage Lines Pt. 1" was included in our Top 35 Songs of 2007. Pox World Empire recently re-pressed the album, so we've taken this second chance to offer our review.