Review Summary: Nice, safe & harmless within the confines of the major label machine.
If reports are to be believed, it was only bad timing which halted the ascension of D.C. born singer-songwriter Eric Hutchinson to becoming a household name. A few years after Ben Folds had rocked the suburbs, and around the time John Mayer started winning Grammys and Jack Johnson began fooling around with Ben Stiller, Hutchinson had signed to well-established label Maverick Records and was ready to unleash his work upon the masses. One long court case (between Maverick and parent company Warner) later and all momentum had stalled, with Hutchinson's growing collection of tunes practically shelved. Even when he was able to self-release another record, Hutchinson was beaten to the punch by another contemporary; Jason Mraz and his smash hit 'I'm Yours'. As his mini-album 'Sounds Like This' proved however, Hutchinson arguably owned a wider stylistic range than any of his acoustic-pop peers, a fact which has become unfortunately mute now that 'Moving Up, Living Down' has been released within the confines of the major label machine.
While 'Sounds Like This' may have been hit-and-miss, it was so on the back of some admirable genre boundary pushing and by showcasing Hutchinson's relatively varied array of influences. Almost evenly split between guitar and keys driven tunes, 'Moving Up, Living Down' is comparitively safe and inoffensive, with most of its tracks by no means being bad, but coming off as nothing greater than harmless due to their reluctance to innovate. Take, for instance, promising opener 'Talk Is Cheap', which contains a reggae stomp that is mild at best. Certain passages hint at Hutchinson's extended vocal range, but never are his limits tested. And while his lyrics are not the continuous stream of cheery topics that acoustic pop-rock is known for, they still don't exactly push the envelope. Thematically, catchy lead single 'Watching You Watch Him' mines the same territory as Adele's 'Someone Like You', but fails to reach the emotional peak of that song due to its over-production and contradictory want to be just too "nice".
Of course, it is undoubtedly that same niceness which also brings Eric Hutchinson an audience. The closing duo of 'I'm Not Cool' and 'Not There Yet' especially further his affable "every man" persona, and hint at his surprisingly entertaining live show that was showcased on 2006 EP 'Before I Sold Out'. Such a humorous title and release not only highlighted Hutchinson's grounded intelligence, but also his charismatic ability to please and involve a crowd. This characteristic resurfaces here with devices such as keys, horns, whistling and hand-claps often popping up to add that extra layer of addictive hooks. In fact, at stages, almost everything from the percussion to the beats - programmed or otherwise - sound like hand-claps! Backing vocals are also fashioned for live sing-alongs, right down to the prompting of "everybody let me hear you sing" on 'Best Days'.
Unsurprisingly, Eric Hutchinson is at his best when extending both tempo and sound to either extreme. Originally dating back to his 2003 debut release, country tinged acoustic ballad 'Breakdown More' finally adds some heartfelt emotion to proceedings. Meanwhile, the now 31 year old lets loose on lively duo 'The Basement' and 'Living In The Afterlife', adding genuine funk and soul to what are likely to be future singles. Elsewhere, however, the fact that half of these tracks cross the four minute mark only serves to accentuate the existence of filler. Any hint of Hutchinson's previous fondness for tempo-switches and build-ups are suppressed, and it is the lack of these unique arrangements which ultimately makes 'Moving Up, Living Down' nothing better or worse than a nice, casual listen. Naysayers may suggest this is par for the course for this genre, but Hutchinson has previously proved that he is capable of better. Maybe a further case of bad timing is required for him to reveal his talent!
Recommended Tracks: The Basement, Breakdown More & Talk Is Cheap.