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One of the States’ most underrated songwriters, Lincoln Barr – formerly of the Pacific Northwest, now of South Carolina – led the tragically overlooked Red Jacket Mine and has a previous solo album, Trembling Frames, under his belt. Forfeit the Prize, however, is a step both forward and to the side. Eschewing power pop, Barr looks to different, more sophisticated forms of American pop music as inspiration – think Burt Bacharach, Holland/Dozier/Holland, even Johnny Mercer, Rodgers & Hart or the Gershwins. That’s not to say Barr dives into the deep end of Sinatra’s pool, mind you, but the arrangements, as modestly presented as they are, owe more to pre-rock eras than the post punk period or the psychedelic sixties. Backed by several underground luminaries, included jazz bassist Keith Lowe, Calexico drummer John Convertino, prolific Seattle producer Johnny Sangster and keyboardist/string arranger/secret weapon Dan Walker, Barr turns his rich blend of caustic wit and hard-won grace to smart, poignant tunes like “Safe For Dreaming, “Toward Infinity” and “The Vicissitudes of Art.” “You Sentimental Fool” keys in on Barr’s approach: harsh lyrical sentiments wrapped in low-key but compelling melody, and the more you listen, the more it sounds like the barbs are aimed inward, not at some poor unfortunate optimist. There’s more compassion than contempt here, and that gives Forfeit the Prize a streak of heart that makes it extra special.
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