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Music Review: Sean Rowe - The Salesman and the Shark

 sean rowe salesman cover
Sean Rowe
The Salesman and the Shark
Available on Anti- (Aug. 28, 2012)

Singer-songwriter Sean Rowe has a voice that grabs you and lyrics that keep it, and when you listen to the fantastic collection of songs on his latest album The Salesman and the Shark, you'll wonder what took so long for Rowe to get noticed.

While the 37-year-old Rowe probably wouldn’t have shied away from success had he realized it with his first album, 27 (Rowe’s age at the time), he’s aware that what’s made him an exciting discovery today required a lot of seasoning. He spent years honing his craft in noisy bars filled with disinterested drinkers, exploring his many musical influences and constantly finding new ones along the way. Eventually, he caught the ear of Anti- Records, which eagerly put out his second album, Magic, in 2011. “I do feel like Magic was a real starting point for me,” said Rowe. “Not that I hadn’t written anything good before that, but it felt like Magic had a real focus to it. Those songs hold some of my best literary work, I think.”

The lyrical strength of Magic earned him comparisons to Leonard Cohen and other lyrical and vocal legends, something that Rowe appreciates, but has taken in stride. “It’s natural to want to compare something we’ve never experienced with something we already know,” said Rowe. “They are all artists I have identified with over the years, but of course there are many more. I think the real key is absorbing what you can from others, mix it with your own energy and then develop your own voice.”

Rowe has established his own voice on his latest album for Anti-, The Salesman and the Shark. Compared to the lyrical load of Magic, the new record offers more opportunity for Rowe to literally breathe, which emphasizes his impressive baritone. It’s a voice that rattles your bones on the deep end, and gives you chills when it wanders into its highest range. “I didn’t think I needed to repeat the same feel of Magic,” said Rowe. “I wanted the new direction to be more cinematic. I guess you could say it has a lot more color to it than the last one.” 

That point is clear on songs like “Joe’s Cult.” With its Tom Waits-ian qualities, it sounds right at home on an Anti- recording. “A lot of that sound was producer Woody Jackson’s influence,” said Rowe. “I love the way that one came out. I think we recorded three drum sets at once to get the boom that it has.”

Here's a live acoustic version of "Flying," which gets the full production treatment on The Salesman and the Shark:

The Salesman and the Shark
was recorded live in studio with real instruments, and that organic approach pays off throughout. On songs like opener “Bring Back the Night,” Jackson complements Rowe’s larger than life voice with a chorus and full instrumental accompaniment. Where Magic introduced us to Rowe the folk singer, the production and song selection on the new record introduce us to Rowe the soul singer.

While the entire record is outstanding, Rowe’s best moments are those in which he taps into the spiritual connection he has with nature, and Jackson deftly knows when to let Rowe’s voice and lyrics and take center stage. On “The Lonely Maze,” Rowe sings “I’ll never get to that star, but I’ve seen the universe in a blade of grass.” The lyric speaks to Rowe’s appreciation for nature, which fuels his passion, and has been the constant driving force through all the ups and downs in his music career. “Ultimately, it is the source for all of my writing,” said Rowe. “I cannot separate emotion, feeling, sensuality, sexuality, life and death from nature. They are all intimately connected.”

Listen to The Salesmen and the Shark in its entirety on NPR's First Listen