There's a stark difference between Justin Vollmar's debut album from 2002 and his new record, "13 or So People Who Need Chances." His new album is stripped down and bare, allowing his voice and lyrics to take center stage. This record has the feeling of a late '60s folk album. There aren't many bells and whistles, which puts Vollmar in the hot seat. It's a showcase of his subtle songs; they won't beat you over the head and command attention, but they linger with you, leaving a lasting impression.
"13 or So People..." is a short album, so it makes its case rather quick. In just over 27 minutes, Vollmar invokes early albums by The Microphones by using little but hushed, innocence-laden vocals to convey his wry message. The addition of simple harmonica notes on a few tracks recalls the faintest hints of Bob Dylan. It's a good combination and works well with Vollmar's songwriting style. These songs feel nostalgic even though they're new; they're like old friends that you may not have seen for years, but you still feel a great deal of fondness toward. Vollmar's greatest talent is his ability to construct soft, comfortable moments.
Using a sample of wind blowing on "A Widow," Vollmar effectively conveys the image of isolation. There is an underlying sadness to this song that permeates the recording. This is a stark piece, but a quiet beauty is the thread that holds it together. "When she does awake there are three birds up in the sky, and though they float together each one seems to freely fly; so to herself she cries... 'I need a friend.'" He sums up the emotion and power in the song with this closing argument. It's the expected conclusion, but it somehow doesn't feel predictable. It's simple and nice.
"William, Go Away" and "Henry's Unprepared" feel like sister songs. These two, more than any other tracks on "13 or So People...," conjure up the images of the '60s folk movement. The softness of his voice is reminiscent of Nick Drake, while the melodic harmonica playing brings Dylan to mind. It's a good combination and serves both songs well. "William, Go Away" reminds me of Seattle. It's not really passive-aggressive, but its almost mean-spirited message is obscured by the overall sweet sound of the song. It's an excellent contrast that shows one thing on the surface and another underneath. "Henry's Unprepared" has the same M.O. and practically sounds like the same thing. It's not as good as the former, though. At times, "William, Go Away" feels like the fully realized version of "Henry's Unprepared." But these two songs work well together, and it is a smart move putting them close to each other on the album.
Showing that he is an astute artist, Vollmar closes the album with his best, and most memorable, song. "Lucy of the Blue Hills" is a whimsical, glockenspiel-laced ballad. The psychedelic '60s are alive and well on this excellent track. It's catchy and makes you want to listen to the album again. If the first 25 minutes don't grab you, this will, and you'll be rethinking your initial ideas about this album. It's a solid effort. Not great, but very good and a direction I hope Vollmar continues in. He thrives under the pressure of being the only person in the spotlight and this stripped down version of his songs suits him. He's definitely on to something here, and now the real question is, where will he go next? 6/10 -- Brad Rose (25 May, 2005)