Conor Gains has earned a well deserved reputation as a singer/songwriter on the rise thanks to his work with the Conor Gains Band, but his first solo release Compass is a ten song collection representing how his expanding ability for realizing his musical and lyrical vision has taken a quantum leap forward. The process of assembling Compass has been a lengthy one and Gains pared down nearly a hundred songs down to ten that he felt best embodied what he wants to accomplish with Compass. It’s a particularly appropriate title for this release as the ten songs here point towards Gains’ ever brightening future with confidence and a wide ranging ambition that few of his contemporaries or peers can hope to match. There’s commerciality and substance alike here and this is far from a purist niche album but, instead, a melodic ride capable of reaching the widest of possible audiences.
Casual music fans will find just as much here to love as the hardcores ever will. “I Know”, the album’s first song, is a great choice for that slot because it presents important parts of Gains’ talents in an easily digestible way. There’s never any time listening to this album that I felt like Gains and his collaborators came off as too showy for a song’s good, but it’s clear from the first that the musicianship working here is several cuts above the norm and they definitely take some chances with later songs that they don’t here. “Walking Alone” takes a familiar theme and turns it in a way that feels accessible, yet more personal, to Gains and ends up hitting all the usual marks we’d expect from a song with this subject matter. Much of Compass is concerned with time honored subjects like love and how we relate to one another, so its doubly appropriate we get a plethora of emotional tones with this release that mimic our own fickle affections and deeply held passions. “Dance Like It’s Your Birthday” is one of the, hands down, most enjoyable numbers on Compass and the go for broke, seize the moment spirit of both the playing and Gains’ singing makes this an early peak on the release.
“Ordinary Love” and “I’ve Been Looking for Your Love” share certain similarities in subject matter and are both quite excellent, but there’s no question the musical reach of the former exceeds the latter. Both tunes draw attention to Gains’ talent for writing a strong, punchy chorus that wastes no movement in getting the song over with listeners’, The latter tune blends minimalist qualities in the arrangement during the first and final halves of the song with a light country blues air while the remainder of the song skirts free-floating jazzy inflections and intelligent percussion laid out through the entirety of the tune.
“Miracle” and “Mexico” seem like the self-conscious peaks of the album, much longer than the surrounding songs, and take very different approaches. The finale “Mexico” is the more nuanced of the two while “Miracle” only brings in a little added rock muscle to underscore its near purist blues pedigree. The closing song is, instead, much more of a look back to the near fusion jazz, albeit never played in a strident or pseudo-virtuosic way and has a cinematic air lacking from many of the earlier songs and definitely not as developed as it is here. Conor Gains is a fantastic performer on every level but it’s his writing, ultimately, that’s giving him the needed foundation to entertain thoughts of a long musical career ahead of him.