Musical genres can be like Legos; you can snap a seemingly endless number of them together and somehow they stick together. This doesn’t mean, however, that they will make sense or even be aesthetically pleasing to anyone other than an awestruck spectator. Sometimes though, simpler is better. This is where recording artist Sam Means shines. Formerly one half of the much beloved and now defunct Format, Sam has been releasing music under his own name via soundtracks, singles and EPs for the better half of the last decade. He’s finally emerged with his first full length 10 Songs which emanates a sincere, timeless vibrancy that is as forthright as its title.
The aesthetic of the album begins with just that: the title. 10 Songs describes exactly what this album is. It’s 10 classic pop rock tracks culled from years of writing and assembled under this unassuming title. The sound is heavily influenced by 60’s AM Pop such as Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks. More than sonic similarities alone, just like these iconic names, Means is a great composer of catchy choruses and timeless-sounding tunes. ‘Last Goodnight’ is soulful song buoyed by a sweeping organ with horns and strings to keep the refrain dancing around your head for days. Songs like this and ‘Taking It Back To Yesterday’ strike a great balance between minimalist melody with maximalist flourishes.
The minimalist theme stretches beyond the music and into the album’s pages. The cover photo, which features Means in a cluttered home office space, is washed out making it feel like it’s been sitting somewhere on that desk since the early 2000’s. The lyrics also reinforce the simple, bare qualities that echo the music. Album opener ‘How To Sing’ finds Sam reflecting on his hesitance to take center-stage when he sings “‘cause they say you can live forever if you know how to sing – but I don’t.” Sam’s musical career has always found him playing in the literal background to powerful singers like Nate Ruess and even Anthony Green on their joint cover of Lana Del Ray’s ‘Blue Jeans’ in 2014.
The album doesn’t just stay in its comfort zone the whole time though. Sam knows how to turn up the dials while taking influence from British Invasion mainstays The Kinks and The Hollies. ‘Calina’ and ‘Other Side of You’ break out the electric guitars and really get the party movin’. They help to vary the mood of the album and keep it from getting stagnant. The latter of the two presents one of the only drawbacks I found after the first couple playbacks and also plays into to the aforementioned album title.
The album’s flow can feel a little discordant at times making it sound more like 10 songs rather than 1 album. This feeling however faded after a few more listens. One place the album’s track listing got it correct right from the beginning is the closing pair of songs ‘Bigger Heart’ and ‘Little Dude.’ Whereas in the first third of the album the tempo changes made me momentarily pause, the slow build of ‘Bigger Heart’ flowed perfectly into its cacophonous outro and concluded with the gentle, emotional journey of album closer ‘Little Dude.’
In the end, Sam Means’ debut 10 Songs does its job very well. It highlights his mystifyingly simple yet strong songwriting skills. Later album deep cut ‘All I Ever Wanted’ could serve just as easily in the background of a hip new TV commercial as it could for your favorite new song. Many songs dip one foot too deeply in those seemingly contradictory pools but Sam somehow finds a way to marry the elementary with the existential to make for the perfect pop tunes. His star may not end up burning as brightly as his former Format band member but I can only hope it will slowly smolder for a much longer time.