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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Tomlinson Has the Voice If Not the Words

November 21, 1994|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Michael Tomlinson's solo concert at the Coach House Saturday had the cozy feel of a gathering of friends in someone's living room. The sweet-toned singer and songwriter made everyone feel comfortable with between tune narratives and witty asides, and his seemingly heartfelt delivery included smiles at every turn.

To make it even more neighborly, Tomlinson, in shorts and minus his trademark beard, spent his entire 30-minute break between sets out in the audience signing autographs, having his picture taken and chatting with his fans. Appropriately, Tomlinson, who performs only his own songs, drew heavily from his current, self-produced release "At Your House." (He also offered samples of an upcoming album and a look at his earlier work).

To say the show was well-received would be an understatement.

His fans seem to crave the feel-good vision of his songs. His world, as reflected in his lyrics, is full of birdsongs, sunlight, snowflakes and winds blowing this way and that, not to mention love, love, love. Sure, there's the occasional heartbreak, too, but it is always of the deliciously melancholy type.

Even if that world view doesn't reflect yours, you can't argue with Tomlinson's presentation. Though his guitar playing isn't much (he makes Paul Simon sound like Segovia), it's just enough to support his lovely, choir-boy vocals. His voice is warm and, at times, sensual; his high-tenor tones are filled with just enough breath to bring them radiantly alive.

His clear enunciation and his charming way of sliding up a full octave and back in a single syllable are particularly attractive. In short, it's a voice that could melt the most frozen mood.

But his lyrics just aren't of the same quality. They are filled with cliches ("like a river returning to the sea"), strange inversions ("a better lover of the world/I want to be") mixed metaphors and unfathomable images. Tomlinson succeeds only on the overall tone of his tales; give them a word-by-word examination and the magic starts to unravel.

There were moments when his poesy came close to matching the charms of his delivery, especially with the newer material. Take these lines from "Yellow Windows":

Gentle wind, you are an angel.

Oh if you were flesh and blood.

But that chimney smoke's your lover;

I have watched you making love.

Better yet, though, were the wordless vocal passages that opened "Sunlight" and "In My Dream"--they let his vocal talents work without the encumbrance of words and their meanings. It's something he definitely should do more of, even if his lyric writing continues to shape up.

Meanwhile, some time with the great poets--may we suggest Yeats, Keats and Shelly?--could do him a world of good. It's a shame to waste such a beautiful voice on such insipid material.

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