Peter Naddeo / Stubborn Horse / August 10, 2018
RIYL: Elliott Smith, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Early Death Cab for Cutie
Before I begin, I need to address the elephant… or perhaps, the stubborn horse… in the room. There are 19 songs on this record. Yes, you read that right. 19. By today’s standards, Peter Naddeo essentially put out two records in one. It’s baffling to me this wasn’t released as two separate records within close proximity of each other – in this day and age, attention span for music is in such limited supply that it’s tough as hell for an artist to get any kind of meaningful momentum. But, all of that? It doesn’t really matter. Releasing such a dense album at a time when albums overall are generally half its length is bold. And bold, arguably, is good. Most artists try and abide by the “quality over quantity” mantra. Others seemingly do the opposite. Naddeo said “Fuck that…” – he’s quite the sailor – “why can’t I do both?”
The first word that comes to mind when talking about Stubborn Horse is “slick.” The production perfectly supports the songs and the style of those songs. I can’t praise that enough. Making a record sound appropriate is almost as much of an art form as writing the songs themselves. Think about your all-time favorite records and try to imagine them sounding like they were genetically modified under a digital microscope. Or vice versa, if you’re into that sort of thing – I don’t judge. Even if the songs were played exactly the same, they would sound completely different. Inferior in relation to the connection you’ve forged with them. I realize I’m pontificating a bit here, but it’s my roundabout way of saying “sweet mix, bro,” or whatever the youngins are saying nowadays.
And even more impressively, it doesn’t take long to recognize Naddeo’s kinship with the late, great Elliott Smith. In fact, it takes exactly seven seconds into “Try,” the first proper song on the record. He made a conscious decision to hit a chord so unexpected that few other songsmiths would be bold enough to try this early in an album’s sequence. You can’t help but smile; it’s a sign that you’re in for a treat.
Moments like this aren’t few and far between, either. “Coal Black” showcases Naddeo at his most Elliott, with multi-layered vocal arrangements over a twangy acoustic guitar that ends far too quickly (more on that later). It’s followed immediately by standout track “Donnie,” a song as close to “catchy” as you’ll find on here. It flows elegantly at a waltz pace, and would set the scene perfectly in an indie film featuring a couple driving through rural America. (Anyone need a music supervisor? Get at me.) And then there’s “Out of My Head” – a song I knew I would fall in love with from the first chord. Gorgeous and romantic-sounding, it should be a late-night-drive staple for many a summer to come. If “Coal Black” is Naddeo at his most Elliott, “Out of My Head” is him at his least. Both suit him extremely well.
There’s bound to be some filler in a record so dense. But in the case of Stubborn Horse, the filler doesn’t really lie in any specific songs, but rather in the indulgent outros and segways of certain tracks. “Coal Black” is an early highlight cut short far too quickly in order to make way for an entirely unnecessary second half – I can’t help longing for another verse or two. “Violet” is essentially an instrumental bridge between “Shaking and Sober” and “Runaway,” the latter of which already being an extensive, instrumental petri dish of its own. He walks this line with as much poise as he walks the hazy songwriter line that dominates most of this record, but the lines themselves don’t quite intersect as neatly as Naddeo wants them to.
Despite all of that, this is not an exhausting listen, just a slightly strange one. Stubborn Horse was clearly well thought out by its orchestrator, but some of the choices seem to deliver unintended negative results. Most notably in the second half, which actually features a few of the strongest songs (the aforementioned “Out of My Head” and the lush penultimate track “All the Best”) – they just happen to be lumped among some unevenly placed counterparts (two of the last six being instrumental, for example). All in all, there’s no way to argue Peter Naddeo’s raw talent for both writing songs and piecing them together to create an appropriate mood. It’s a testament to this talent that I am able to compare him to Elliott Smith on so many occasions during my listening; it’s not often one can make that comparison without getting some head scratching in return. But I assure you, this is about as close as you’ll get nowadays. And I don’t mean to call too much negative attention to the instrumental tracks on here – I love instrumental music, and these are great songs. They just, for the most part, have a difficult time working in harmony with the ones that surround them. Stubborn Horse is an eclectic and elegant soundscape whose only fault lies in its need for an editor. But you can’t fault Naddeo too much for that; he gave us 19 songs that are all expertly crafted in their own right, some of which being among the finest I’ve heard all year.