Friday, September 19, 2008

Music Review: Ernie Halter- Starting Over

Let him be your lighthouse.


Similar to athletes who tell reporters post-game “that they’re taking it one game at a time to do what’s best for the team,” it’s become common practice in the world of media-friendly clichés for musicians to stress that for them making music “is all about the fans.”

Yet in the case of singer/songwriter and acoustic cover genius Ernie Halter, he not only argues the same but in addition to walking his talk, he continually looks for ways to invite fans to come along on the journey with him. In addition to becoming “one of the first artists to really take advantage of MySpace,” the “tech-savvy approach” favored by Halter in using the internet as not just a brilliant marketing tool but as a way to follow through on his belief that “music is a conversation between the writer/singer and the listener,” the talented musician gave fans unprecedented access to the recording and promotional process of his newest album Starting Over.

Broadcasting the entire recording process online as well as running an increasingly popular YouTube channel featuring more than one hundred exclusive videos where fans dish up requests for his endlessly popular covers, plus providing webcast footage of “his concerts across the United States,” as well as sharing a “live ‘tour van cam,’” a Facebook page, a Flickr Photostream of the handsome Halter, and offering up ringtones via Rock Ridge Music (if you text RRM to 71777), it seems safe to say that had he not become a musician, Ernie Halter could’ve become the Bill Gates of online social networking.

Yet unlike the constant error messages of Windows Vista, Halter is quite “user friendly,” in responding to requests, so much that due to the overwhelmingly positive response from playing 150 shows, Halter felt inspired to include three of his most popular covers on the album, including Musiq Soulchild’s “Just Friends,” David Ryan Harris’ “Pretty Girl” (which he describes as “the most beautiful song ever”) and Baby Bash’s typically hip hop club anthem “Cyclone.” Incidentally, the three covers are three of my favorites on his eleven track album and, although they definitely sound different live, I felt compelled to celebrate not just Halter’s respect for his fans but the fans themselves by including footage of the two gaining the most frequent repeat play on my car stereo below.

“Just Friends”


As you can see by his charismatic interaction with the adoring crowd in the “Cyclone” video who giggles and urges him on in his acoustic cover of a hip-hop track, that he explains he “flipped… adding some chords and arrangements that weren’t there,” since “it’s not the kind of song you’d hear an acoustic songwriter singing,” he is a consummate entertainer. And throughout the experience of performing in the neck-breaking schedule of 150 plus live shows, he not only “wrote the material for the new record,” but due to the intensity of the nonstop tour, he confesses that he feels as though, “I’ve started to become a real songwriter in the last year.”

While during this time his first son was born, sadly it was also during this time he refers to as “a total crossroads,” his marriage fell apart and the wide range of emotions, regrets, pain, joy, and life lessons he went through are evident throughout the album he aptly titled to “set the tone.” While throughout the disc, love is the agenda of Starting Over, Halter chronicles the ups (“Crazy Love”) and downs (“Different Lives,”) of romantic love with an emphasis on the burden of long-distance relationships (“Try,” “Count the Days,” “My Heart is With You,”) but in addition to those playful covers offers a few flirtatiously sexy come hither tunes of his own (“Blue Dress” and “Played”) as well. And while emotionally, it’s sort of all over the map, like his tumultuous year has been, and some songs feel a bit repetitive (especially the long-distance relationship anthems), there’s only a few I find myself skipping past regularly but more than anything, it’s his voice that draws you in.

More specifically, worrying that “something tends to get lost a little when I get into the studio,” impressively, Halter chose to make the album sound “more raw and live,” with vocals recorded in “one straight take” sans “editing” or “pitch correcting.” And although he notes that this way he was “free to make some mistakes, to let it be what it is, because I feel that is also fitting with the content of the record itself,” it’s the lack of over-production and human quality of the absolutely awe-inspiring pitch of his voice and the way he can make it sound like a record or train in “Cyclone,” to wistful, sexy and longing a la Maroon 5 in “Blue Dress,” or just downright soulful in “My Heart is With You,” which makes Starting Over an amazing feat.

And indeed, upon the first few listens, he overpowers the band so much with the musicality of his instrument that it’s only later that we realize how talented his band is in ensuring they not just accompany Halter’s unique delivery and the way it changes appropriately throughout each song but heighten it when acceptable, and vocally nary a “mistake” is heard at least from my estimation.

Although he handles vocals, guitar, piano and Rhodes organ throughout, Halter’s impressive lineup includes Jason Spiewak on the organ and Rhodes organ (as well as producing the disc), Matt Chiaravalle on guitar and percussion (along with mixing, mastering and co-engineering the album), Zachary Rudulph on bass and Michael Peters on drums, all working together nearly as a chorus since Halter’s voice is an integral part of the arrangement as opposed to just the “front man” or to quote Almost Famous “guitarist with mystique.”

Yet, aside from a few of the redundant but beautiful heartbreaking numbers about the testing of love when you’re far apart, the album’s most gorgeous original Halter track and Over’s finale “Lighthouse” with piano accompaniment is Starting Over’s standout and a song as “direct,” “simple,” “open and honest,” as Halter aspired his album to be. Moreover, while its lyrics can mean something different to each listener, it also follows through on the musician’s belief that “there is something very healing about music. Whether you’re making or listening to it, it has a way of washing over you, making things alright.”

And in offering to be “your lighthouse,” as the lyrics proclaim, once again, he continues his conversation with his loyal audience of more than 70,000 MySpace friends for whom—to misquote the lyrics, he stands.


Released in August from Rock Ridge, Starting Over’s track listing is as follows:

1) Different Lives

2) Try

3) Blue Dress

4) Count the Days

5) My Heart Is With You

6) Pretty Girl

7) Just Friends

8) Crazy Love

9) Cyclone

10) Played

11) Lighthouse