Former Heavy Mole/Feature Films frontman finds freedom in stuffed animals and empathy on superb sophomore solo album

About 15 years ago, when Sam Craighead was in his early 20s, he and his friend would routinely go to beaniesnboyds.com and fill their online shopping carts with as many stuffed animals as possible, then see if the site would actually process the order.

“We'd sit there in the OSU library computer labs saying, ‘OK, 30,000 of that one,'” Craighead said recently at a coffee shop. “[The site] set up its online store where they didn't think anyone would ever use it in this way. They didn't set limits on anything. So we'd make million- or billion-dollar orders and see who could get the highest shipping cost.”

Craighead commemorates the comedic prank via “Beaniesnboyds.com,” a song from his excellent new album, The Tuesday Night Music Club. “Set the order as COD / Set aside 5 million for shipping/ We're getting more Beanie Babies,” Craighead sings in a smooth, understated tone amid a smooth, understated chamber-pop arrangement that's here and gone in under two minutes.

“Beaniesnboyds.com” is one of two tracks that mentions Beanie Babies, though the references come and go so quickly and with such little fanfare that it may take a few spins to get the joke. And if the wry humor sometimes goes unnoticed, that's OK with Craighead, too. Rather than being presented as goofy punch lines, the piano-driven songs are warm and inviting and strike an empathetic tone. Even “Popozao 2,” which is told from the perspective of Kevin Federline as he implores ex-wife Britney Spears to go on “Ellen” with him, paints K-Fed as an endearing, relatable character.

Craighead, who has another solo release (2015 cassette Craig's Hideaway) under his belt and also played in Columbus bands Heavy Mole and Feature Films, fills The Tuesday Night Music Club with small moments that hint at larger ideas, much like the items in the aisles of a local thrift store he often browses.

“I like taking photos of dumb stuff that a rich person used to own and they died and it was donated to a thrift store — dolls, the bear that's on the cover of the record,” he said. “Maybe it's a little bit funny and a little bit sad. Or there's something kind of beautiful about it. But it's also completely stupid, because why would we ascribe any value to a collectible thing?”

Inspired by the pop-punk songs Craighead began revisiting when he started running a couple of years ago, the multi-instrumentalist purposefully kept the Tuesday Night songs brief. “I like the economy of that,” he said. “It makes you want to listen to it again. With shorter songs, there's a limit to how much you can go into. So it becomes more of a snapshot and less of a portrait.”

Craighead also found artistic freedom in surrendering the engineering of the album to someone else (Drew Bullock at Oranjudio Recording Studio) while at the same time reveling in a solo artist's ability to write about anything he fancied.

“Why would anyone want to talk about a Beanie Baby in a serious song?” he said. “That's the type of thing I'd run by someone in my old band and they'd be like, ‘No, we can't do that.'”

That freedom allowed Craighead to make his best album yet. It's a little bit funny, a little bit sad, and there's something kind of beautiful about it.