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Bill Janovitz 

Up Here (SpinArt)

As the frontman and songwriter for Buffalo Tom, Bill Janovitz wrote catchy pop-rock songs for the college set. The band, which stuck together for 15 years, experienced mild success (it had a cameo on the now defunct TV show My So-Called Life), but is now indefinitely on hold. In the meantime, Janovitz has devoted himself to his solo career. Up Here, his second solo effort, is filled with sparse acoustic guitar and vocal arrangements dotted with multi-instrumentalist Chris Toppin's lovely harmonies, bits of percussion, and pensive piano lines. While the album is a definite departure from Janovitz's work with Buffalo Tom, its stripped-down instrumental approach gives him the opportunity to shine as a thoughtful -- and sometimes funny -- storyteller.

On "Best Kept Secret," Janovitz contrasts a familiar country shuffle with a series of bleak images, including deserted classic cars and vacant property. As the piano twinkles in the upper registers and the pedal steel guitar adds its tones underneath, Janovitz uses the chorus to celebrate the odd beauty of abandoned things. Similarly, the sparkling album closer, "Long Island," tells the tale of a kid's struggle over whether to leave the familiar confines of his suburban existence. Janovitz tells the tale with a kind of hopefulness that makes lyrics like "Long Island/Let others berate you as I stand idle" sound sincere. Only "Like You Do" and "Light in December" -- songs on which he deserts his usual vocal style and opts for sappier fare -- fall flat. However, Up Here is, on the whole, a worthy series of short stories and confessionals, crafted by a man with a knack for engaging pop songs.

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