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Travis Atria’s solo debut Moonbrain

Two events over the course of 2017-2018 proved pivotal to the writing of Travis Atria’s solo debut Moonbrain. It isn’t an outgrowth of Atria’s previous work with the band Morningbell; instead, it owes a huge debt to Curtis Mayfield’s work but never sounds nakedly imitative. Instead, Atria chose to utilize Mayfield’s style of “painless preaching” to deliver his own message. The message is inspired by the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and its resulting violence as well as the IPCC climate report released the following year. Atria failed to find any peer or contemporary applying themselves to the task of discussing the modern world’s problems and felt he owed it to younger generations that he speaks about these concerns. It risks heavy-handedness, but Atria never succumbs to that potential trap.

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Eric Atria’s fiery guitar leads the way through the title track’s opening moments but takes a backseat when the song begins in earnest. He continues making his presence felt throughout the course of the cut while fully weaving his playing into the song’s larger scheme. Jordan Burchel’s co-production infuses the performance with potent immediacy. Audrey Campbell and Sam Moss contribute important backing vocals throughout the album and the title track features some of their finest work. Chris Hillman’s drumming sets an authoritative tone during “No Name Street” and the musique concrete additions to the song are interesting, but they never really enhance the pre-existing musical quality. Aaron Colverson makes the first of many important contributions to the album with this track; his violin work brings a great deal to this track.

Brass comes to the fore with the track “Jazz Cigarette”. There is an underrated sense of humor leavening his concerns about climate change, but Atria still makes a substantive statement despite the comedic veneer his songwriting embraces here. The aforementioned brass, trumpet and trombone, punctuates the track with seductive musicality. Baritone saxophone is an important component in the success of “Shine” and it rates as one of the best lyrics included on this release. The pervading mood of the song is wrapped up in a growing consciousness about his own mortality, but his writing achieves an universality allowing any adult listener to relate to this track.

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Cassandra Polcaro joins Moss and Campbell on backing vocals during the song “Blood Moon”. The chorus of voices heard throughout this track underlines the apocalyptic, yet ultimately affirmative, spirit of the track. Atria chooses precise imagery to convey that message without ever overdoing it. The pop appeal of “Love Theme” is nearly overshadowed by the exceptional rhythm section work from drummer Dan Bailey and bassist Keith Ladd. The vocal arrangement for the track is another high point of this song. Atria ends the album with the track “Make Time” and it works as an impactful final statement for this release. Moonbrain straddles the line between entertainment and meaningful statement; despite the weighty subject matter, Atria intuitively understands the need to wrap his message in a pleasing package. It’s a fantastic solo debut.

John McCall

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