Suburban Soul

From the quotations pulled from Coleridge, Dickinson, Eliot and Ovid in the liner notes, it’s safe bet that Benjamin Wagner’s “Always Almost There” is a record better suited for serious listening than background music at a keg party. The material here is highly personal, well-crafted and features some of the finest local talent ranging from the tempered guitar work of Steve Feldman to the sweet singing of the Mind’s Eye’s Karen Savoca.

The introspective nature and acoustic foundation of the songs put the album in the Toad the Wet Sprocket or R.E.M. vein, but this is not a sound-alike record, but rather Wagner on display. Over soft-strumming, airy guitars, Wagner sings with strength, clarity and passion. He shows his range on “Big Picture,” where his voice soars, “I’ve held on to this vision for all of these years” only to show self-doubt a moment later, “I hope, I pray, it’s not too long.”

It seems as if this record is an artistic release for Wagner, something he may not have been able to do in his former band, the SAMMY-nominated (for best new artist) Smokey Junglefrog. “I spent too many years divorced from myself, I didn’t know me from anyone else,” Wagner songs in the album’s final cut, “Coda,” concluding the song with the artistic declaration, “I’m out here on my own/I finding, finding my own voice.”

Recorded at Penguin Studios and produced by Wagner and Feldman, the quality of this recording surpasses most on the local scene. From the fat guitar feedback of “Flood,” to the perfectly mixed trumpet fills of AJ Mann on “Keelhauling,” “Always Almost There” is as much a sonic statement as a personal one from Wagner. And while it doesn’t rock hard or have a marketable single, it is a mature work from a talented musician who has come to terms with himself as an artist.

The Syracuse New Times (Syracuse, NY)