By Chelsea Spear
In the ’80s and ’90s, Dave Martin cut his teeth as a member of the beloved Boston rock band O Positive. His role as a sort of band factotum—in which he played numerous instruments and worked on the band’s onstage sound—filled out the quintet’s angular, shimmering, new wave arrangements. Since O Pos disbanded in 1995, Martin has put forth a prolific solo career, recording a trio of solid, folk rock-influenced solo records. His most recent album, Natural Selection, mines the contemplative vein of his previous albums, and also finds him introducing some new sounds and arrangements.
The album could well be split into two sides. The first half of the album continues in the reflective modes of his solo debut, One Has Hope for Her Soul. Arrangements are simple and straightforward. With little more than a guitar and his soulful baritone, Martin establishes a melancholy, solitary mood. While his previous band couched their lyrical narratives of unrequited love and fear of commitment in oblique metaphors, Martin looks head-on at the heartbreak of love lost and regained at midlife. His straightforward point of view gives a stinging, poignant perspective to these early songs, particularly “5 to 7,” a subtle yet wrenching ballad of fatherhood.
The mood picks up a bit towards the end of the album. The melodies grow sprightlier, the tempos pick up and the arrangements start to fill out. In particular, the deep cut “Fast Romance”—with its female backing vocals and exclamatory Farfisa riffs—stands out as a sweet uptempo track with a danceable beat and a melody that will get stuck in your head for days.
For me, the only problem with the album is the occasional processed vocal. In a few spots, particularly on “Gotta Have It,” the vocal track sounds slightly compressed or Auto-Tuned. While this isn’t particularly noticeable on the first few listens, the crunchy-sounding vocal is especially sad due to the high quality of Martin’s singing. His voice anchors the songs perfectly, and this kind of processed vocal isn’t especially necessary.
Fans of O Positive looking for a characteristic follow-up to that band’s striking pop sound might find Martin’s cerebral, unplugged sound a bit wanting. Those with a taste for companionable troubadours such as Ray LaMontagne or Iron and Wine will find Martin’s quietly cathartic songs a balm. Those struggling with heartsickness might find that Natural Selection may help them to feel less alone.