POP MUSIC REVIEW : Amiable Dan Seals Plays It Safe in Santa Ana
“Everything in moderation” may have made sense to ancient Greek philosophers, but it’s not much of a credo for a country singer, at least where the art of performance is concerned.
The country singer’s job is to render vivid, direct portrayals of people caught up in emotional extremes. At its best, country is risky and bare, an open gamble on the singer’s part that he or she can sing about feelings that everybody knows, and make them sound honest, immediate and real.
Dan Seals’ problem is that he sings country music with moderation. Seals’ music is a judicious, commercially successful blend of honky-tonk traditionalism, mild country rock and pop slickness. His singing is clear and melodious but not too insistent. His repertoire, a fairly even mix of originals and borrowed tunes, can range into adventurous, topical territory, but Seals always returns to reassuringly standard themes and situations.
Overall, Seals and his four-man band scored a moderate success in their early show Monday at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana. There were a few solidly rocking moments that, if not exactly close to the edge, at least strayed far enough from the middle of the road to get heads bobbing and feet tapping. And Seals, at his best, did manage to break through and make feelings ring true and immediate.
The problem was that Seals was willing to settle for half-measures instead of going all-out through the 75-minute show. His unassuming manner worked fine between songs, when he proved to be an amiable and gently humorous host. But Seals’ easygoing singing style and some stock, slick, synth-happy country-pop arrangements made it hard to care much about what his more routine songs had to say.
One of Seals’ advantages is a good sense of melody that allows him to slide by in his less substantial moments. A song may be bland, but at least if it’s tuneful, it won’t be a total bore or turnoff.
It’s a skill that brought Seals his first prominence in the mid-1970s, as half of the soft-rock duo England Dan and John Ford Coley. There is no telling how many memory cells in the collective national consciousness have been encoded with the chorus of England Dan’s fluffy but catchy hit, “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight,” thereby rendering those cells unsuitable for any more substantial task. Seals apparently has this sort of thing in his genes: His older brother, Jim, was half of Seals & Crofts, another duo that holds too much of our gray matter hostage, like some unshakable computer virus.
(Did you ever stop to wonder what the American public might achieve if all the mind power devoted to retaining insinuating schlock-pop could be liberated for productive use? We could memorize useful algebraic equations. We could command technical data that affects our daily lives. We could remember the capital of Illinois, or the decade in which the Civil War was fought. Clearly, the way for America to compete internationally is to step up the exportation of catchy schlock while banning it from the domestic airwaves.)
The best songs that Seals sang at the Crazy Horse could pass even a stringent schlock-detection test. “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” was the show’s highlight, a wistful ballad of broken love that gains from having a good, specific backdrop: Seals’ wronged husband is a journeyman rodeo rider with bittersweet memories of an ex-wife who has sacrificed their marriage to pursue rodeo stardom. Seals lent it some extra passion and his delicate falsetto bits gained impact because Seals doesn’t have a rangy enough voice to master them easily--they were affecting partly because they involved some risk on the singer’s part.
“Big Wheels in the Moonlight” was another strong number, a steady country rocker that benefited from sharp, varied interplay between Joe Stanley’s twangy lead guitar and John Porter McMeans’ throaty, Duane Eddy-style rhythm parts. Moreover, Seals’ song goes beyond the typical country celebration of the glamour of interstate trucking by using it as a motif for a commentary on how people tend to play it safe instead of acting on their dreams.
Other promising numbers came up short because Seals didn’t push hard enough to make them vivid. “Factory Town,” from his new album, “Rage On,” didn’t have the grit and fire needed to bring alive its tale of an ordinary, apolitical worker caught up in a labor dispute. (Seals didn’t play the album’s other good topical tune, “Five Generations of Rock County Wilsons,” a Faulknerian lament that depicts development money turning a family’s traditional homestead into just another piece of real estate owned by strangers). “Addicted,” a Cheryl Wheeler song that carefully details a woman’s unhealthy dependence on an uncaring lover, was robbed of intimacy by a sonorous, synth-heavy arrangement. Seals’ concluding ballad, “One Friend,” was pretty and fervent, but it would have been even more touching--a fine, intimate finale--if Seals had set aside the formulaic synth arrangement and picked out a solo acoustic rendition on his left-handed, 12-string guitar.
Judging from his better songs, Seals has the ability to pull off that kind of imaginative stroke. But judging from his performance Monday night, he would rather play it safe and do a moderately pleasing show than take the chances that could make for a memorable one.