Guitarist Simon Townshend’s songwriting skills are razor-sharp on his first release with Eagle Rock, Looking Out Looking In.
As the album title suggests, these eleven tracks find Simon probing inward, exploring loss, middle age, the creative process, and the tenuousness of male-female relationships. But he also surveys the landscape outside, taking stock of world events and the human condition in general.
“If you won’t take me all the way, then I’m getting on my knees to pray,” Townshend announces on the reflective title track. “I’m gonna have to keep the faith.”
If Simon bears passing resemblance to The Who’s famous guitar-slinger, it’s because he’s Pete’s baby brother. But he’s just as proficient on the six-string. Townshend’s been an in-demand session artist for years, and following the death of Big Country front man Stuart Adamson he was summoned by that band’s surviving members to head-up a side project called Casbah Club. He issued a series of well-received albums on his own STIR label—including Among Us, Animal Soup, and Ages during the 90s and early 00s. But Townshend really began stretching his wings wider on last year’s Something New EP, on which he previewed some of the material that found a permanent home on Looking Out. The disc also features additional guitar work by Tony Lowe and drums by Simon’s son, Ben.
Townshend’s currently touring with his brother as stunt guitarist in The Who, adding solo dates in some markets at more intimate venues as his itinerary allows. He’d road-tripped previously with The Who on their Quadraphenia and is a mainstay in singer Roger Daltry’s backing band, No Plan B.
Simon’s voice does sound a lot like that of his older sibling—but at times he also channels Peter Gabriel and Cat Stevens. He plays the hero for an unseen damsel on oceanic ode “Forever and a Day,” dismisses gossip with a defiant Don’t care what they say—I’m in love with you on “Stay,” and assumes the role of a regretful Romeo on “Bed of Roses” with equal ease. Bittersweet ballad “Still Love” mourns the departure (possibly death) of an old flame (I still miss you, girl…here in my heart you’re alive). “Make It” is an uplifting anthem celebrating the power of positive thinking (Believe in who you are, it’s easy if you try), and “Making Waves” presents a series of catastrophes (shipwreck, plane crash, etc.) and their clean-up efforts as a musical metaphor for communication breakdowns of a more personal nature.
“Be prepared to trust,” advises Townshend. “Making waves on stormy seas is a recipe for making enemies of lovers.”
The language is clever—evocative and poetic—and Simon belts his verses and refrains with a soul singer’s practiced pipes. His voice ranges from a menacing low-end rumble (“She Asked Me”) to upper-register falsetto (“Stay,” “Making Waves”) and is double-tracked in parts to achieve some indelible harmonies. But Townshend finds his comfort zone on feel-good cuts like “Something New” (on which he revels in the freedom to compose) and “Electric Friend” (an arena rock-styled thank-you note to his guitar).
It’s tricky distinguishing Townshend’s guitar parts from Lowe’s, but in the end it’s the colors on the canvas that matter—and this disc packs a full sonic spectrum. Simon veers from jangle-pop (“Forever and a Day”) and sinewy funk (“Stay”) to topsy-turvy, wah-wah drenched rock (“She Asked Me”) and mandolin-flavored folk (“Bed of Roses”). Most of Looking Out rides over the relaxed strumming of one or two steel-string acoustics, and it’s a safe bet the tunes would still sparkle without further ornamentation.
But it’s stuff like the bluegrass-meets-renaissance fair lute picking on “She Asked Me” and dark, echoey slides and staccato notes on “There’s a Girl” that gives the tunes personality and sparkle. Indeed, the latter tune resonates hauntingly thanks to the tasteful volume swells, shimmery, George Harrison-esque delay, and gritty, spiraling lead fills that bounce left and right. If you dig old school Clapton, Peter Frampton, Tom Petty, The Edge (U2), or John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers), then the guitar chops on display here will be right up your ally.