DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Daniel Romano is a Canadian musician and graphic artist who specializes in country music that's a throwback to a bygone era. His new album, "If I've Only One Time Askin'," features arrangements that recall a Nashville production style for in the 1960s. But rock critic Ken Tucker says Romano isn't indulging in mere nostalgia.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GOING TO TEACH YOU")
DANIEL ROMANO: (Singing) I know what you did. She told me. And I know that you led her astray. And I know that you hurt her in more ways than one. And I know what I'm doing today 'cause I know...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: From its opening swell of a string section to the entrance of his nasal croon, "I'm Going To Teach You," the first track on Daniel Romano's new album, "If I've Only One Time Askin'," had me hooked. It's the enjoyment Romano conveys in expressing the feelings of loneliness and despair presented as exercises in grand self-pity that manage to avoid being grandiose - not that he doesn't like to push that edge.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU GO YOUR WAY, I'LL GO BLIND")
ROMANO: (Singing) Before you leave me in the shadows of a love I can't erase, let me once more gaze upon the summer lightness of your face. Don't you know I'll miss everything when you walk out the door? So turn the light out when you leave 'cause I don't need it anymore. I still miss you, gentle lady.
TUCKER: That's "If You Go Your Way, I'll Go Blind," in which Daniel Romano suggests that he would literally rather lose his sight than never see his love again. There's an art project atmosphere to this album, complete with liner notes redolent of purple prose that begin with the sentence - it is a maddening chore to create a song from the ashes of humanity. And it only gets more florid from there, yet the music remains in firm control. Romano constructs his tunes around phrases that advance his emotions and only upon close consideration seem slightly odd. A good example is something called "All The Way Under The Hill."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE WAY UNDER THE HILL")
ROMANO: (Singing) You always said I'd never make it with your cold bitter heart. You would knock me down to nothing, then tear me apart. You wouldn't know it 'cause you're gone now, but I found the will to make it all the way under the hill. No more hurting...
TUCKER: I'm still not sure I quite understand what being under a hill means, other than miserable. Romano comes at this country stuff from different angles. His bio says he started out in music in punk-rock bands. Before and during and after that, he's worked as a graphic designer. The covers for his albums are variations on the typography and photo portraits typical of vinyl country albums of the '60s and early '70s. He comes at country music as a fan and a student, speaking knowledgeably about Nashville songwriters such as Harlan Howard and Doodle Owens. Romano is uncanny in his ability to both summon up a bygone era of the songwriting and infuse it with a vibrant wretchedness. He does it here on the album's first single, "The One That Got Away Came Back Today."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY CAME BACK TODAY")
ROMANO: (Singing) I was suspicious about you. I had your love - the greatest love I ever knew. But she never took me in like I needed. I'd catch you crying for no reason, but the truth. And now the one that got away came back today, and he took your love right out from under me. I guess I knew you'd always loved him, but you never did say. But now the one that got away came back today.
TUCKER: Throughout this album, Daniel Romano uses a modern variation on what in the '60s was called the countrypolitan sound - country melodies smoothed out by middle of the road pop instrumentation and a crooning vocal style. Romano walks the fine line between sincerity and irony, and it's that balancing act I admire most on this eccentric yet moving collection.
DAVIES: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large at Yahoo TV. He reviewed Daniel Romano's new album, "If I've Only One Time Askin'." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan introduces us to a new literary noire she's fallen for. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.