By Ann Driscoll
Air Traffic Controller has been packing clubs around Boston with their post-Beatles, pre-Radiohead brand of good ol’ fashion pop/rock. The brainchild of lead singer/songwriter Dave Munro (who was an actual air traffic controller in the U.S. Navy), the group garnered some significant buzz when MTV nominated them for the 2009 Best Breakout Boston Artist Award. Their late-2009 debut LP The One is loaded with the characteristics that make their live shows so engaging: charmingly direct melodies, rousing shout choruses, earnest lyrics, and the vocals of Munro, whose likable yet cynical timbre and well-controlled intonation may qualify him as one of the best male vocalists in Boston.
Produced by power-pop purveyor and Berklee alumnus Bleu (who has worked with Jellyfish and Boys Like Girls), The One is graced with a radio-ready sheen, and Bleu brings in heavy background vocals that amplify the Traveling Wilburys influence already apparent in ATC’s repertoire. “Can’t Let Go” boasts enormous amounts of antiphonal background vocals stacked upon themselves with a propulsive snare drum backbeat, much like the Wilburys’ “The End of the Line.” The album’s catchy stand-out track “You Think You Know” features whirring U2-like lead guitar and more intensely layered, shout-vocals which build the arrangement in unpredictable ways. “Bad Axe, MI” whose chorus shouts “One more song! One more song!” (you can guess where the band places this one in their set-list) features at least 30 vocalists. Dave’s brother Rich drums with muscular simplicity, giving the songs space for production embellishments.
Munro’s lyrics are nostalgic for one’s youth but accepting of adulthood, lightly focusing on love lost and rarely veering into dark territory. The title track is emblematic of the lyrical content at large: “The one I loved, the one I hated/I guess I should have appreciated/Can you feel me reaching toward ya?/In this song, I wrote it for ya.” With self-deprecating asides, “I may be sounding like an ass/But I’m just behaving like a man” (“Don’t You Tell Me What To Do”) and self-reflexive wit, “It’s plain good rock ‘n’ roll/With Beatles influence” (“Bad Axe, MI”), the emotional tone of the record is unpretentious and good-natured.
The One nods towards classic rock without reaching. Bleu’s production keeps the arrangements fresh and unpredictable without drawing too much attention to itself. Most importantly, Dave Munro’s crystal-clear vocals sing melodies worthy of his influences: Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, and The Wilburys. Though Munro sighs with resignation, “Maybe this Boston music scene is just a myth,” on one tune, Air Traffic Controller is bringing much-needed national attention, talent, and sincerity to local music. The One will likely bring the band fresh licensing opportunities and more national exposure.