Not since the hitmaking heyday of James Taylor and Cat Stevens has pop music been so overrun by earnest young men with acoustic guitars. James Blunt, Ray LaMontagne, Iron & Wine, Cary Brothers, Joshua Radin, and whoever else happens to turn up on Zach Braff’s movie soundtracks — all, with varying degrees of skill and insipidity, offer an update on the ’70s folk-rock singer-songwriter, crooning confessions and plaints over strummed chords, self-pity etched in their quavers.
With his 2003 debut, O, Ireland’s Damien Rice leaped to the top of the new-folkie pile, selling more than 500,000 copies and earning lavish critical praise. Rice’s 9 offers more of the same: the warm rub of his slightly weathered voice over spare piano and guitar accompaniment, melodies that build to stately crescendos, and lots of self-absorbed romantic angst. Your feelings about him will depend on your tolerance for croaky falsetto singing — the post-Radiohead de rigueur style for sensitive white boys on both sides of the Atlantic — and soul cries like ”Do you miss my smell?” (from the ghostly piano ballad ”Accidental Babies”). But Rice stands apart from the pack because of the genuine beauty and eccentricity of his tunes, and his willingness to disrupt the prettiness with crashing rock dissonances. If Rice learns to gaze a bit higher than his navel — to write fewer songs along the lines of ”Me, My Yoke & I” — he might yet make a truly great record.