Julian and Sean Lennon, Dhani Harrison, Jakob Dylan. All of them share the surnames of some of rock’s biggest icons and thus all have had to forge their own career from under a huge (and at times almost unfair) shadow that John Lennon, George Harrison and Bob Dylan have created. But if you’re father still is known in rock circles but doesn’t quite have that stratosphere level of fame, you can still carve your own road. And a perfect example of that comes in Chicago singer-songwriter Miles Nielsen.
Nielsen happens to be the son of Cheap Trick front man Rick Nielsen yet you won’t hear “Dream Police” or “Surrender” on his latest album. Instead the younger Nielsen resembles a Southern saloon rocker on the introductory track “Rusted Hearts” with its ragtime-tinged seasoning as Coralie Townie adds harmony vocals. Here Nielsen comes off as if Tom Waits was more in his bloodlines than papa Rick. Power pop? Not in these parts (not yet anyway) unless mentioning Charlie Chaplin singing counts. There are smidgens of pop on the breezy “Baby Blue” that is a slightly above average Michael Penn-ish toe-tapper that speaks of Nielsen being untrue to his belle.
Laid back without the feeling of inching along, Nielsen hits far better paydirt on a quaint retro-pop foundation during “The Grain” with its Beatles-like influences. The horns and the sing-along “ba ba ba ba bas” make it a perfect Midwestern match for Americana rock. The only problem here is that it fades out far too quickly, especially when another good minute to 90 seconds sounds quite possible. Thankfully, what Nielsen shines on is an ode to the Bluegrass State with “Dear Kentucky (You’re Killing Me),” a Celtic-laced ballad with Townie again appearing that shows a different look to Nielsen’s work.
One knock on the album might be that there’s a reprise entitled “The Crown” which doesn’t quite hit the mark and certainly isn’t a style bridge between the songs on either side of it. Nielsen’s two-and-a-half minute tune doesn’t work too well, but the earthy “Cold War” appears to put the record back on some semblance of solid ground thanks to the drumming of Micky Rosenquist. And one sleeper pick has to be “Overrated” with Nielsen sounding like he’s applying for the job of Sloan lead singer Chris Murphy as guitarist Daniel James McMahon fleshes out the rock quota. It’s a tightly packaged, delicious bit of power pop.
If there’s one song here which might cause a grimace it’s the creepy, crawling tone “Maria” is soaked with. Only a singer like Waits or Steve Earle might succeed with this ditty, and even then with Earle it might be only a quarter of the time. But overall (and including another questionable outro), Nielsen seems to have the goods more often than not. Papa should be proud. Just don’t expect a Live At Budokan release in the near future.