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Phil Vassar

American Child – 2002 (Arista)

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

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CDs by Phil Vassar

When listening to Phil Vassar, it's simply impossible to avoid also thinking about Billy Joel: Vassar's also a piano man; he tries extra hard to come off as just your average guy; and he's unafraid of making big biographical statements (such as his life story summarization in "American Child") through small pop songs. One also comes away, however, with a nagging impression that Vassar is a sincere craftsman, instead of an insightful commentator. The album presents Vassar as the good guy in a movie that you can't help but pull for, but it doesn't provide a whole lot of insight into the complexities of the human condition.

Too many times, Vassar songs dig no deeper than the plays on words their titles are build around. For example, "Athens Grease" borrows the guitar riff from Dire Straits' "Money For Nothing" to sing the praises of a car mechanic, and the chorus to the song about a Texas love gone bad in "Houston" begins with: "Houston, we have a problem."

As a listener, you just can't divorce the singer from the song. When Joel sang about being a piano man, you knew he could only be speaking from his own personal experience. Similarly, when Vassar sings ever-hopefully about romance in "Ultimate Love," he is its only possible main character. Such a heart-on-sleeve, overly optimistic tendency prevents Vassar from ever stepping into the shoes of an un-likable character. "American Child" is equivalent to a TV show, which never fails to find its way to a happy ending at the conclusion of each episode.