Concert previews: Andrew Varner and The Pinkerton Raid return to Ohio with new records

By Columbus Alive
From the April 11, 2013 edition

Andrew Varner moved to Columbus to perform at The Big Bang Bar, a dueling pianos joint across from Nationwide Arena. While belting out other people’s songs nightly he also wrote, recorded and performed songs of his own. His Make Believe EP was straight-up Top 40 bait, but it was expertly conceived Top 40 bait.

He’s since moved back to Nashville, but he’s swinging by The Basement this Saturday to perform songs from his latest release, Shades of Red. It’s pristine, emotive, sometimes hokey — the sound of a musician writing pop without a shred of concern for indie cred.

Actually, country cred seems more like it. With slightly twangier arrangements, the breezy “Maybe” and the inspirational ballad “Sleepwalker’s Dream” could mingle among Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood on the airwaves. Nashville’s hit factory seems to be making its mark on Varner’s lightweight pop.

There are flashes of character in the cookie-cutter molds, though, from the solo piano outro to “Scarlet Town” to the funky twinkle of “Liar.” If your sensibilities are even the slightest bit punk, you’ll probably retch at the high-fructose sweetness, but for those with more conservative palates, here’s an independent musician you might actually dig.

Speaking of conservative, Jesse James DeConto used to attend Cedarville University, a nearby Christian enclave where students aren’t allowed to drink or dance. These days he’s writing hip-shaking NPR fare with choruses like, “The life of the party has plenty of wine,” so it seems he’s abandoned those mores, though probably not his faith, given the miraculous allusion.

In a recent email, DeConto explained about “having to learn to see the beauty in the world because a place like that fills you with so much fear of the world.” He’s expounding on that experience in an upcoming book, but also through the music of his Durham-based band, The Pinkerton Raid.

As such, the music is fraught with well-trodden but still-fertile fare about wrestling with faith. Conceptually it’s intriguing, but musically it falls flat more often than not, playing like Over the Rhine and Destroyer outtakes. At one point on The Pinkerton Raid’s self-titled debut, DeConto sings, “This is a song about a girl/ She deserves a better song.” He’s right.

One thing The Pinkerton Raid has going for it is a physicality that’s often lacking in music of this ilk, which bodes well for the group’s show at Rumba this Saturday opening for Denison Witmer and Noah Gunderson.