Almost as a metaphorical personification of his human voice, the music of Old Man Charlie teeters a ponderous edge between lovable frailty and a certain "hair stand up on the back of your neck" boldness. Something I haven't heard since Russian Red drove me to the brink of weeping the first time I heard her "I Like Your Glasses" album. His music's fragile mood also reminds me of some of the darker songs by Damien Jurado. Old Man Charlie's allure is delicate and poetic and once your ear is turned you are a captive audience for the vivid, imaginative and sometimes morbid themes swarming around in Arlen Lawson's head. To achieve this poignant of a musical personality with just his mouth and six strings speaks volumes about his ability and potential, yet there is a lot to be said for what a focused and well produced record could bring us from him. His efforts so far have been adorned by other musicians lending additional accompaniment and instrumentation which show that this idea is a good one, but not a necessary one at all times. I find that the most tasteful arrangement of additional instrumentation in this singer / songwriter scenario is when you don't even notice that there is more going on than a voice and a guitar. So while I certainly see the potential in breathing additional life into Old Man Charlie's songs with due tastefulness, the delicate frailty that charms me can easily be toppled by a repetitive awkward drum beat or overbearing synth.
Luckily, in his latest release "The Absent King of the Earth," I am very pleased to hear a less distracting accompaniment and a more focused and tasteful production lifting these great songs where they deserve to dwell. This isn't one of my preferred genres of music because I often get a bit dragged down by the "sad sack" attitude of some singer-songwriters. In contrast however this EP has a comfortable length and enough variety and personality to keep me pretty much glued whenever I put it on. I tend to be a sucker for catchy melodicism and hooky song craft, and I find that the core of Arlen's songs possess a mindfulness of his ability to take advantage of that skill. Though I like the EP quite a bit, the highlight for me is a spoken word track called "I Want a Life" where he speaks pointedly about what he wants out of life. Though not technically a song, I think that the accompanying music, the mixing and recording on this track -clicks- the way I think all of his songs should, and can.
"The Absent King of the Earth" is not only a joy, but also a heap of evidence that Old Man Charlie is clearly heading for brighter horizons. I like to think of this EP as his parting gift to Iowa City, as the talent pool here is severely lessened by his departure to Los Angeles.