Comfort for the Traveler is a fine example of the delights that are missed by people who turn their noses up at self-released material. Admittedly, every aspect of Comfort... is as refined as a DIY release can be, but for many listeners a record label's implicit stamp of approval is more important than good music. And that's a shame, as Comfort for the Traveler would be an accomplished effort whether it was a crayon-labeled CD-R in a green cellophane slip-cover or a professional-looking disc in a custom-designed digipak.
While they've settled comfortably into the Americana niche, Utah Carol don't fit its stereotype; they're certainly not ashamed of their country twang, but they don't write painfully sincere songs about factory closings and windblown ghost towns either. Their approach is heavy on American nostalgia, but it's more of a governing aesthetic than a specific set of sonic cues. Song titles like "Silver Space Rocket", "Soda Fountain" and "Mr. Rogers" hint at a definite fondness for the tail end of Atomic Age America -- a time when futuristic concepts were tempered by cultural naivete and multi-generational camping trips still seemed like a pretty cool way to spend a vacation.
In Utah Carol's America, musical variety is the spice of life. Comfort... offers a little bit of everything, from the subdued country-pop of "Misfits" to the straightforward and catchy jangle of the aforementioned "Silver Space Rocket". "See the Sun" gives an offhanded nod to proto-psychedelic sixties pop, and "Angel" energizes its country sing-along with Esquivelian hi-fi sound effects. The thoroughly modern "Soda Fountain", with its looped percussion, rests comfortably next to the traditional, gospel-tinged, banjo-pluckin' "Promised Land". "Nellie" appropriates seductive jazz rhythms, and "The Way of the Buffalo" sounds like an application for Elephant Six membership, carefully designed to get a "thumbs up" from Ladybug Transistor and Neutral Milk Hotel.
Eclecticism, of course, is a double-edged sword. It's good to have a lot of ideas, but an obvious surplus of inspiration makes a band seem undisciplined, and also makes it harder for them to establish a distinct musical identity. Utah Carol's debut, Wonderwheel, was guilty of a certain amount of kitchen sinkism; a few of its more experimental tracks offered broader, less successful diversions, and seemed to have been included simply because the band had recorded them and couldn't bear not to use them. Comfort for the Traveler fares significantly better. Husband and wife team Grant Birkenbeuel and JinJa Davis spread their most unusual ideas over several songs -- experimenting with unusual percussion in one song, adding a slightly jarring keyboard tone in another
-- allowing the album to flow smoothly from track to track without abrupt and illogical mood shifts. Birkenbeuel and Davis also seem more comfortable on the vocal front, delivering their lyrics in a relaxed and natural style. Davis, in particular, has an impressive range; often, when she's multitracked, she sounds like two completely different singers.
If you really are gun-shy when it comes to self-released albums, this is a perfect opportunity to conquer your fears. Comfort for the Traveler offers intelligent, upbeat, occasionally countrified pop songs. They're well written, skillfully produced and lovingly packaged. All that's missing, really, is the record label bloat. And you don't actually like that, do you?