By most accounts, Bart Davenport is a lover, not a fighter. Unguarded and unabashed in his adoration for the soft-rock pleasures of Seventies-era AM radio, the earnest singer/songwriter is about as aggressive as John Oates’ mustache.
However, after reading one newspaper’s negative review of “Palaces,” his recently released fourth solo album, the gentle troubadour is clearly on the defense.
“In an amazingly over-the-top and scathing review, this music critic assumed that everything I am doing is some sort of ironic joke ” like the whole thing is a parody, like Flight of the Conchords or something,” Davenport said. “People sometimes just don’t get it. They can’t imagine that someone would write these kinds of songs that are so sappy and sentimental, but also sincere.
“That writer might be too young to have heard Hall & Oates on the radio when they were still a new band. It’s like if you grew up on a diet of Built to Spill, how on earth could you possibly relate to my music? I’m not trying to reach out to those people in their language. I have to reach out to them in mine, and if they can’t make the translation, there’s nothing I can do.”
The 38-year-old Oakland, Calif. native’s fan base and his first three solo releases ” 2002’s “Bart Davenport,” 2003’s “Game Preserve,” and 2005’s “Maroon Cocoon” ” may have helped to establish his predilection for vinyl-era music, but in 2006, Davenport took a surprising and successful sojourn into soft electronica with his self-described “studio side project,” Honeycut.
Despite the rising notoriety of the electro-funk trio, fueled in part by a song featured in an iMac commercial, Davenport was anxious to return to the familiar basic template of acoustic guitars and restrained instrumentation that has comprised the bulk of his sound as a solo artist.
“My solo work is me just doing what I naturally do,” he said. “A band like Honeycut is just a collaboration where I’m experimenting. I don’t really have to do much of a transition because this is just more natural for me anyway. For the past 10 years, I’ve been busy writing songs on acoustic guitar and performing them.”
Initially, Davenport planned “Palaces” as a kind of collaborative effort with fellow musician Kelley Stoltz. However, Davenport found himself taking over production reigns after scheduling conflicts forced Stoltz to depart for a tour, leaving the album only partially completed.
“(Stoltz) gave me a boost to get started on the new album and he got me fired up to continue working on it once he was gone. Self-producing is a little scary, and I think an outside ear is really valuable to me. Logistically it was a nightmare, but in a lot of ways, the final album turned out sort of creatively perfect.”
Perhaps as an agreeable result, the finished album draws from Davenport’s diverse spectrum of musical tastes and blends it for a smooth mix-tape of Seventies-inspired country folk, Philadelphia soul, yacht rock and sunshine pop. Even the tracks are arranged in a manner that recalls an old LP, with a sunny “side one” first half and a somber “side two.”
“I sort of intentionally front-loaded it that way, so people who don’t want to delve too deep can get the fun stuff up front and then decide if they want to stick around and hear some more intimate and sadder things on the second half,” he said.
Davenport remarkably avoids a cacophony of throwback tracks by charmingly evoking such feel-good artists as Bread (“A Young One”) and The Carpenters (“Wombat’s Room”) in a manner that suggests true deference. He even throws a little bit of Honeycut-esque funk into “Jon Jon,” a song that assures fans his flirtation with more modern sounds may not be completely over, and confidently asserts his ability to make frequent left turns more than just mere gimmicks.
“Occasionally, I’ve been accused of being a chameleon and I think that’s the weirdest comment of all,” he said. “I’m sure I would be 10 times more popular if I actually had some way of picking up some zeitgeist of what people want. I don’t really work that way ” I just do what I want, and there’s variations between different moods and feelings, because I want to give people a colorful experience.”
As for those who doubt Davenport’s sincerity, he said his best response to that is on the album.
“For my music, the whole approach is to say something honest and hope that it’s kind on people’s ears and hope that its kind of beautiful, whether it’s sad or happy,” he said. “I like making things that are pretty, and like the lyrics from my song ‘Palaces’ says: ‘Made only for you, pray not to bore you or make you feel sad.’ There’s no metaphor in those lyrics.” “Lucas Ross