Paul Bryan is a former sideman and backing vocalist for the likes of Aimee Mann, Michael Penn and Duncan Sheik, so it's no surprise that his debut album, Handcuff King (The Bats is Happy), bears a resemblance to the work of his erstwhile employers. The album's warm production and vocal harmonies also bring Mark "Eels" Everett to mind; completed by lyrics that are by turns poignant and cryptic, it's an impressive debut.
-Time Out New York
The songs on this debut CD work like recombinant DNA: After just a few spins, they'll sound as if you've been playing the album for years instead of days. Mr. Bryan-a San Pedro, Calif. native who now lives in New York-is a bassist, singer and longtime sideman who has played with Leona Naess, Graham Parker, Duncan Sheik, Michael Penn and Aimee Mann, with whom he has toured since 1999. All that road work has paid off on his graduation to frontman. Handcuff King is an evocatively drawn and deftly orchestrated meditation on love and loss that flickers with the spectral melancholy of an old newsreel. On the opening track, "Barrel Built For Two," Mr. Bryan uses images of a couple going over a waterfall in a barrel as a metaphor for their relationship; in "One For My Head," the world, spinning too fast, is a "tilt-a-whirl pinning us to the past"; and in "Star Stuff," he asks: "What if it's all dust / That's it, just star stuff / And the light that I see / Burned away long before me." Like his lyrics, Mr. Bryan's modern folk rock has a shimmery, ethereal quality that would be at home on a double bill with Ms. Mann and Mr. Penn. The guitars, when they're not acoustic, fuzz and wail in the background like restless ghosts, the piano sounds like it was recorded through an earache, and Mr. Bryan's voice sounds like a chalkier Dan Folgelberg. The high point of this 11-track album comes at the halfway mark with "Houdini and Cecilia," which is about the famed magician's obsession with his mother and his attempts to contact her in the afterlife. It's also where the album gets it's title. "Mother speak to me, send a message through / I could believe for you," Mr. Bryan-as-Houdini pleads over a forlorn piano, acoustic guitar and brushed snare. the heavens may be indifferent, but New York should rejoice: a genuine new talent has come to town.
-Frank DiGiacomo, The New York Observer
ADULTS ONLY: on his first solo album, Paul Bryan finds the perfect guitar-and-keyboard arrangements with which to set his songs about love and loss. Bryan is best known as a sideman. He’s played bass and sung backing vocals for Aimee Mann on stage since 1999, recorded with Graham Parker and Kate Pierson, and produced Dennis Brennan’s excellent Rule No. 1 (Esca). But this exceptional collection of beautifully played pop songs for adults, his first solo album, is overdue. Bryan’s sweet, soft-edged vocal style is perfect for these numbers about love and loss. They’re set to carefully textured arrangements that propel his lyrics along on gentle guitar and keyboard melodies — just right for the balance of loss with warm resignation that’s the disc’s emotional tone. "Houdini and Cecilia" explores the great magician’s will to contact his mother in the spirit world, but it’s actually about unquenchable longing. "I Listen to the Rain" is an insomnia-fueled contemplation of a troubled heart. There’s also a gentle, lightly swinging piano ballad reinvention of Dylan’s "I’ll Keep It with Mine."
-Ted Drozdowski, The Boston Pheonix