John Ralston - Needle Bed (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

John Ralston

Needle Bed (2006)


Elliott Smith will never be replaced. He was as enigmatic and accomplished a songwriter as we've had in the last 20 years, and his inner demons were presented in such a voyeuristic yet gorgeous manner that replication would be damn near impossible.

Damn near, though, not completely. You see, John Ralston evokes the haunting spirit of a man that left us far to soon. Some of the similarities are almost eerie. If the plaintive and whimsical sounds of "When We Are Cats" does not recall the late Elliott Smith's "Independence Day" you are simply not listening.

At the very root of both their sounds are the wistful, but highly emotive vocals that form a gorgeous tapestry atop the subtle rhythms of acoustic guitar. It's a simple formula, one that has been used for years upon years, but rarely can so little be used to make so much. It comes down to bare emotion laid down in lyric and voice, and Ralston not only understands this, but uses it to the absolute fullest. Most tracks are between the two and three-minute range, and even those restraints don't so much as quell Ralston's ability to pack a lot into a short amount of time. "I Believe in Ghosts" displays not only this ability to work in brief durations, but the ability to work in a bit quicker of a tempo. His morose delivery works just as well in a bouncy rhythm as one that includes only light plucking of the strings on his acoustic guitar.

"Gone, Gone, Gone" combines the best of both those worlds for Ralston, and it finds him in as comfortable a state as playing either of those styles separately. The verses are where his more mellow side is accompanied by some gorgeous backing strings, and the chorus is where he spreads his wings and vocal chords just the same, displaying some of the reserved power he'd been holding back on before that. As mentioned earlier, though, it's the comfort that's most endearing. He's not straining or yearning for notes just beyond reach, he's using both his strengths in one finely pieced together exposition, and it speaks volumes.

There will never be another Elliott Smith, and I'm not going to sit here and trivialize his life or death by saying John Ralston has even slightly taken his place. What he has done, however, is record a terrific album in that very same vein, and I for one will be eager to see where he goes from here.