Music isn’t a visual medium, but it relies on scale and proportion every bit as much as photography or painting. Christian Lee Hutson’s Beginners is a gentle roots album that’s notable for its ability to sound intimate but also grand, soft acoustic guitars sometimes as big as orchestras and string sections as small as incidental guitar string squeaks. Hutson hasn’t reinvent folk, but has crafted a smart, surrealistic take on it.
Hutson’s voice, like his music, has a dream-like bent to it. There’s something haunted about his delivery, which has a rhythmic chant quality, almost like he’s channeling characters who speak through him. He has a wonderful, soulful voice, but it often feels like he could transition from singing into speaking if the songs slowed up even a tiny bit. It’s not a bad quality, as it allows us to easily hear his equally trippy lyrics.
For instance, “Talk” begins with the line, “Someday I’ll fix my shoes /For somebody else to use/When I can touch their face / And stay in the same place,” as simple as a nursery rhyme, but as complex as a literary novel. The song is about the legacy of relationships and how the narrator is replicating what was taught to them by their family. So are the shoes just shoes? Do they represent the character’s heart? Meanwhile, Hutson is singing over a simple snare hit and pretty acoustic line, with strings eventually blowing in, introducing the delight and incongruity of a tumbleweed rolling through freshly-fallen snow. It works because no element overwhelms another.
“Get the Old Band Back Together” is the album’s most conventional rock track, Hutson playing playing behind drums and electric guitar. He sounds like Tom Petty, nailing Petty’s comforting whine, even inserting a Bob Dylan-esque wheezing harmonica solo. The track is about a character trying to get back into music and Hutson tells the story subtly and without judgment. The heart of the song is the line, “After the baby, everything changed / I only have a couple a night these days,” which reveals why the character stopped playing music, but it’s refreshing that Hutson doesn’t hit that idea too hard, instead saving it for the middle of the song, an interesting but significant detail.
Hutson is an engaging songwriter and compelling performer, so there’s a lot to work with here, but the production elevates Beginners. Produced by singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, who is personal friends with Hutson, the affinity shows in the work, which is deferential but also presents as its own character within the album. The production never competes with Hutson but rather brings out some of Beginners’ quirkier qualities, amplifying without distorting. Beginners showcases Hutson’s music in a loving way, like a clock melting in a tree.
review by Steven Ovadia