There's a lot o love about PJ Olsson. A guy from the very tippy-top of Michigan's Upper Peninsula heads to Hollywood with a guitar case full of great songs and a beatbox full of even better production ideas. He then takes the music business by quiet storm, getting his infinitely likable songs (featuring plenty of dry wit, snappy beats and theme song-ready melodies) into all kinds of TV shows and commercials. Then unlike, say, New Radicals' Gregg Alexander, who burned out but stayed on the West Coast to produce on the DL, our Peej heads back home to Houghton to reconnect with his roots.
American Scream is Olsson's homecoming record. It's neither as bombastic nor as self-consciously clever as his past discs, which delved a little too floppily into dance beats and tech flourishes. If anything, it's more literal and straightforward, as Olsson sings sarcastically on the title track: "Don't you know it's cool I got my songs on the TV/ I got a wife, I got the kids I got the dog/ Won't you look at me/ It's a part of my American scream."
Despite the changes, though, this is still good-timey alt-rock from a singer-songwriter who came of age smack-dab in a music business ruled by major labels. Album opener "A Million Stars" is William Blake meets Sting ("a million stars in a single tear") with a nice vocoder twist to end it. "Rain Song" manages a kind of Nick Drake breathy gravity that unfolds into an extended sitar outro. Olsson's still clever, but he's more focused on the songs than just their sound this time out. "A.D.D. (People Stop Running)" is an instant standout. Bonus points for the bonus track — a cover of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" (made popular by Elvis Costello) — featuring an appearance from the singer of a British-Arabian band, that's about the most unbridled cut here. Let's hope the move back Yoop-way leads to even more unbridled-ness for Olsson next time out.
Hobey Echlin writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.