The question of the day: What would happen if a musician crafted his album’s sound, not out of a single unifying goal, but from a grab-bag of his idols?
“Congress Hotel” is the sophomore album of California-born singer-songwriter Ernie Halter. Halter’s fame, such as it is, was garnered largely through MySpace: He has 73,000 friends, though he has never made the Billboard charts. His first album, “Lo-Fidelity,” was firmly entrenched in the realm of neo-soul pop, even going so far as to include heartfelt covers of songs from both Elvis Costello and Otis Redding. Production was a non-factor in “Lo-Fidelity”: sound quality on the first album was poor, with background fuzz and an acoustic sound that gave it the endearing feeling of being serenaded via voicemail message. On “Congress Hotel,” though, Halter eschews the ethos of his earlier work and instead sends his influences underground, forgoing covers and embracing more professional production.
Halter is part of a wave of recent pop-inclined singer-songwriters — including artists like John Mayer, Norah Jones and Amos Lee — who indiscriminately borrow their sound from the cassette tapes they listened to when they were growing up. Al Green? Sure. Elton John? Why not? Halter selects artists that blend to create a brand of Latin-and-soul-infused pop, which could have been a good thing, as he fishes from a larger pond of influences than his cohorts, even ripping from Beethoven by using the melody of “Für Elise” for a ballad, aptly titled “Lisa.” Unfortunately, though, he doesn’t exactly pull it off. It is to his credit that Halter tries to add a little ethnic flavor to the classical work, but ultimately this translates into simply adding bongos.
Halter’s move toward professional production means that the robust earnestness of his voice that came through in an acoustic setting — the quality that made him a charming pop act on “Lo-Fidelity” — gets lost in the shuffle on “Congress Hotel.” The vocal restraint he exercises makes his vocals slightly anemic; Halter’s choice to turn his singing to sugary sweet cooing means that his vocals get lost in the uninteresting, dull thumps of the band.
Though Halter may be channelling Al Green, his voice lacks Green’s soul, and the mediocrity of much of the song-writing shines through, bright enough to make all the tracks seem the same.
But, while bland, the songs are still enjoyable. They reassure and lull the listener into a relaxed mood by touching on familiar topics — love is awesome, breaking up is not awesome, life is hard sometimes — and the subjects of 95 percent of pop albums. Halter’s music does not challenge the listener and does not push any boundaries, but it does provide solid pop background music.