Boarding House Rules
First Appeared at The Music Box, April 2001, Volume 8, #4
Written by T.J. Simon
Tom Heyman's debut solo release Boarding House Rules is whiskey-soaked roots-rock music that will impair your driving even if you haven't touched a drop. This drunken album has no party-hardy Margaritaville or Louie Louie drinking songs, but the melancholy characters created by Heyman are all a sip away from a 12-step program.
Heyman, as you may recall, was the guitarist for Go to Blazes, a pioneering, alt-country ensemble from Philadelphia. With his former band, Heyman helped pave the way for many other artists to break the long-standing stranglehold that Nashville had on country music. More recently, he has been performing with the critically-acclaimed, San Francisco-based Map of Wyoming.
Boarding House Rules begins with Till I Forget Her Name, a melancholy tear-in-my-beer number about how long it takes to drown out the memories of lost love. For the remainder of the album, Heyman intersperses up-tempo blue-collar drinking songs with softer drivin' and cryin' ballads. The strongest track is Bottle Full of Wishes about — what else — the genie in his bottle of booze. This is the only number on the CD on which Heyman truly finds his voice.
Heyman certainly has some things going for him. Despite his vocal shortcomings, he can write an excellent country song. His music is lyrical and intelligent while capturing the angst of working-class poverty. In the title track, Heyman tells about the boredom of the down-and-out lifestyle over a Grateful Dead-like slide guitar groove as he sings "Sleepwalk till payday, then you join them again in the line at the check cashing place." He doesn't romanticize drunken, blue-collar existence. He tells it like it is, no matter how pitiful it might be. In 16 Blocks to Go, Heyman documents the experience of a kid forced by his mother to go to the local gin mill to bring his daddy back home.
It's also worth noting that Heyman is a fine guitarist. Throughout Boarding House Rules, he deftly performs electric, acoustic, slide, and pedal steel guitar. In addition, the production and organ work by Chris von Sneidern, his Map of Wyoming bandmate, is flawless.
However, it's hard to get past Heyman's sub-par vocals. At his best, he sounds like a country-fried Lou Reed or a poor-man's Johnny Cash. At his worst, he sounds flat and off-key — more often than not coming off as the drunk at the end of the bar singing Steve Earle songs without accompaniment or invitation. You don't have to be a great singer to pull off a good roots-rock, alt-country song, but there must be a minimum amount of vocal competence if you expect a listener to sit through an album of your music.
There are definitely moments on Boarding House Rules when Heyman rises to the barest minimum of expectation. However, there are just not enough of those moments on this eleven-song booze-bender to make it worth your while.
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2001 The Music Box