(STUNNING MODELS ON DISPLAY)
Recorded when he was still in high school, Will Stratton’s 2007 debut album, What the Night Said, attracted encouraging reviews and scattered attention from the press, thanks largely to a cameo from Sufjan Stevens, a songwriter to whom Stratton would have invited comparisons even without the guest spot. With his breathy voice, quiet songs and ear for orchestral flourishes, What the Night Said connected the dots between Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Yet and Stevens’ Seven Swans.
Stratton, now 22 years old, spent the better part of three years working on his follow-up, No Wonder, writing between classes at Bennington College, and it clearly bears the expanded musical vocabulary of a recent college graduate eager to share all the new sounds he’s discovered. Nick Drake still looms large, but No Wonder also recalls the rollicking, throwback pop of Belle and Sebastian (“You’re a Real Thing,”) the sleepy-eyed love songs of Yo La Tengo (“It’s Okay If You Want To”), Alex Chilton’s teenage melancholy (the title track) and Elliott Smith’s tense, lo-fi ruminations (“Nineteen,” the record’s fiercest song and most welcome surprise.)
No doubt Stratton’s college music composition classes served him well, and he has a keen sense of what’s easy on the ear. What college didn’t instill in him, though, is a songwriting voice of his own. Even No Wonder’s best songs cling too closely to their muses, and several songs fall flat altogether. The six-minute “Robin Hood and Maid Marian as flawed socialists” parable “Robin and Marian,” for instance, injects unnecessary politics into an album that otherwise eschews them, while the JD Salinger homage “For Franny Glass” is no better than any other song written by a college student about a book they just read. Stratton possesses a lot of raw talent, but on No Wonder, he’s still wrestling with how to best focus it.