Ocean Liner, Gabriel Tajeu bring acoustic intimate vibes to the stage
Indie folk band Ocean Liner – fronted by married couple Ben Smolin and Alison Smolin – is starting to get back into the swing of things as an active recording act. Their last big musical date was last year in July when Florence, Ala. band The Bear opened for them at Birmingham’s WorkPlay. Their latest gig as parents of a baby girl has their schedule a bit preoccupied, but they are making room for their love of music. Two EPs (The Need for Sleep, David Cooper, Sr.) have already showed up on digital music platforms since the release of their self-titled debut album, and they are currently hard-at-work on their follow-up album.
The Smolin duo returned to the intimate theater inside WorkPlay to give their devout fans more of their deep-thought poetry in motion. Opening for them was folk/R&B singer-songwriter Gabriel Tajeu. Already making his rounds as an indomitable presence on the local Birmingham music scene, Tajeu has earned significant praise for his debut LP Finding My Way, which was released last year. SoulTracks.com mentioned it as one of the “best albums of 2013,” while the latest music video for “Darlin’ Please” has become something of a viral video after earning over three thousand hits in just two weeks of being uploaded. Tajeu presented a shrunk down, acoustic-laden version of the gigantic full band production amassed on his album before the Friday cluster inside WorkPlay. With a songwriter’s style that flirts with John Mayer sensitivity and Stevie Wonder imagination, Tajeu was in great form as he worked his magic on guitar alongside talented guitarist Allen Stone and percussionist Dave Crenshaw. “Self Righteous,” “Patience” and “Darlin’ Please” allowed Tajeu to croon with the dreamy romance of Musiq Soulchild while uptempo workouts like “Something It Ain’t” and “Raindrops” allowed him to liven up the atmosphere with light lounge funk. The audience reception to Tajeu’s music seemed to bear a deadpan pulse of coffee shop acoustic sets, but the overly-relaxed crowd was quickly awakened by his beckoned call to show off their dance moves on “How Do I Tell Her.” One couple even slow danced to “Darlin’ Please” as if they had been transported back to their senior prom night. As Tajeu closed his set with “Raindrops,” Crenshaw showed off a foot-stomping percussion solo that stirred up the crowd. It was a short moment, but one that gave Tajeu’s set an extra highlight to remember.
With much of their set surrounding their 2013 album, Ocean Liner opened up their set with “Nice Things,” the opening single from their David Cooper, Sr. EP. Inside the classic rock workout, the surfer-looking frontman shoots down minimalism and opts for the finer things in life. Indie rock band jams akin to the Black Keys highlight the momentum inside “Tell It Like It Is” and “Rich White Kids,” which properly showcases the dexterity of Allison’s strong drumming. Later on, frontman Ben Smolin gives the crowd ample warning concerning the gloomy content that would invade much of their set. That unique storytelling, a perfect fit on Ben’s emotive wails and Chris Martin-esque falsetto, along with Alison’s supportive harmonization works out well on “Dustbowl, “Swan Song” and the adult-contemporary movements of “Drowning.”
Hard-to-digest messages pertaining to death ring aloud on “Suicide.” On the frank composition, Ben – standing all alone – plays a warm Kings of Leon-drenched melody on his acoustic guitar on top of lyrical elements that seem bothersome and creepy. It isn’t until he closes the claustrophobic tune that the story discovers its timely gasp of fresh air (“When I stood on the edge and I looked down/I decided that I’d just stick around.”) On a previously unreleased song from their upcoming LP, the two harmonized literally about being in love “‘til death to us part” as they sung about “dying together.”
The Smolin duo originally were a part of a Coldplay-meets-U2 indie rock band named To Light a Fire, which made regional noise and started to mushroom into one of Alabama’s rising acts before they went on an abrupt hiatus. Anyone with a good memory of those eclectic performances will take a good look at the two-member ensemble of Ocean Liner and question if there needs to be an extra musician on deck. The two seem to be at peace by themselves and try their hardest to keep their set from feeling disorganized as they move from once space to the next: Ben shifting from guitar to keys; Allison moving from drums to stand-alone mic. But to keep the fluidity of the show from caving in, it may be time to add in an extra player. Later in their set, Ben mentioned that the twosome was going to try weaving a full band into their future live sets. If shock and awe were on the tip of certain tongues, Ben numbed the pain by stating that they would keep their more intimate, acoustic numbers in place. If there was one major quip to highlight about Ocean Liner, it would be Allison’s body language when in front. Regardless of how unreceptive the crowd is or how small the role is, a frontman or frontlady must never stand with their hands crossed.
INFO & DETAILS
Date: February 7, 2014
Location: Workplay Theater, Birmingham, Ala.