Do you know how comforting it is, how soothing and joyful it can be to hear a great song played on an acoustic guitar? With or without supplemental instruments, the heart of a song can always be identified when it’s stripped down to an acoustic guitar, a singer’s voice, and his or her words. It’s what pulled me into the realms of Paul Simon, Johnny Cash, The Carter Family, and countless other artists who understand the intrinsic value of a song sans electricity.
Christian Lopez, a young man at the fruitful age of 19, understands this value, too. The songs on his debut LP as the Christian Lopez Band, Onward, are centered around this value and, even though many of the eleven tracks feature additional, traditional country and bluegrass instrumentation, it’s Lopez’ acoustic guitar and his soulful voice that pulls deeply on the heartstrings and shines brightest. Lopez’ quieter moments on Onward stand out most after multiple listens. Songs like “Years,” “Goodbye,” and the intro to “The Man I Was Before” don’t have to work hard to showcase the raw talent that Lopez possesses. The melancholic “Goodbye” inverts into a minor key lament through Lopez’ boyish tenor and a string arrangement, while album opener, “Take You Away” sounds like a slicker cross between late-era Whiskeytown and Jackson Browne. If Lopez has pulled from any influences, he’s certainly picked the best he can find.
Lopez knows his way around a melody and a complimentary guitar part. And his backing band provide just enough accompaniment to keep Lopez in the role of the frontman. When full-band stompers such as “Don’t Know How,” with all it’s drum fills and chiming electric guitar arpeggios, and “Pick Me Up,” with all it’s piano chords and tight rhythm, come through the speakers for the first time, it can be revelatory; a much-needed salve for all of the lacquered up bruises brought on by contemporary country and Music Row. A few times, however, Lopez gets lost under the weight of too much instrumentation when all the song really calls for is a less-is-more approach. “Leaving It Out” piles on the instrumentation, harmonies, and reverb to Lopez’ vocals, where it likely would have made a decent single-man tune. It sounds as if Lopez, along with producer Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell), aren’t quite ready to let Lopez fly freely with his own ideas—even when his songwriting is in top form.
This type of decision is understandable for a debut album. In a noisy realm of new bands and artists, Lopez could be a standout just based on his songwriting ability alone. He’s got plenty of time to get to his comfort zone, and Onward, like it’s title suggests, shows that he’s ready to pursue that path with good intentions and sincerity.