Considering the photograph he and his people ran with, you can only imagine how the shoot for the cover of Gavin DeGraw’s debut, Chariot, went. “Listen, man,” DeGraw’s manager might have said. “Don’t gimme that shit-eating Adam Duritz smirk. We’ve gotta get people to believe that you’re the real deal, which, you know, you are. Clive believes it, and he’s way harder to convince than the average joe.” (This is true: “He was closing his eyes and clearly feeling every lyric,” Clive Davis—the J Records boss who exerts more ownership over the names “Whitney Houston” and “Carlos Santana” than Whitney Houston or Carlos Santana—told People last August of his first time seeing DeGraw perform. “He was the real deal.”)
Unable to turn his music’s earnest Barnes & Noble pop-soul charm into an apposite facial expression, DeGraw would’ve watched his excitement curdle into frustration, causing one of the junior stylists on the set to step forward cautiously, gingerly clutching something green between her trembling fingers. “Mr. DeGraw,” she would’ve said, “I’ve been listening to your song ‘Chariot,’ to the line where you say, ‘Staring at a maple leaf, leaning on the mother tree.’ What if for your album cover we shoot you staring at a maple leaf? You don’t have to lean on the mother tree if you don’t want to.”
In the resultant photograph, DeGraw looks like a stubbly, knit-hatted diplodocus about to feast on the juicy leaf in front of him. This is totally appropriate: Hard-crooning piano man DeGraw’s aesthetic is painfully outmoded in our current pop landscape, having more to do with craft and ability and practice-makes-perfect than style and flash and who-are-you-wearing; compared to Ciara or even his buddies in Maroon 5, he’s a lumbering dinosaur trying to build a house with a bale of hay and seven wooden dowels. Also, he makes music for herbivores: “Inside I’m reeling,” he sings in “Chemical Party,” goofing on the midnight tokers throwing down around him, “so fresh and so clean.”
DeGraw deserves no plaudits for adhering to the Judeo-Christian work ethic he picked up from Billy Joel and Van Morrison. I mean, Son Volt really gave it their all, you know? But unlike shit-eating Adam Duritz, who peaked early with the proto-emo gem “A Long December” and never again figured out how to translate chops into pop, DeGraw remains engaged throughout the very listenable Chariot, correctly sussing that even if a dinosaur must move slowly, it still must move (not unlike the album itself, which just went platinum nearly two years after its release). So he asks for strength in the title track, then gets it from a sweet drip-drop piano line and backseat alt-rock saltwater guitars. Or he fingers a Stone Temple Pilots riff until he finds its soft white-funk underbelly. DeGraw doesn’t succumb to singer-songwriter slipslop much, either: “I don’t want to be anything other than what I’ve been trying to be lately,” he sings in his current radio smash, threatening to melt your brain until it hits you: What I am is what I am.
Poor Ryan Cabrera doesn’t enjoy that self-determination. Here’s how the cover-art conversation between the 22-year-old guitar- strummer and his manager, Joe Simpson (father of Ashlee, Cabrera’s sometime girlfriend), likely went: “But Joe, the CD’s not about my recognizably spiky bleach-blond hair! Can’t I look at the camera?” As with DeGraw’s album, the still-building Take It All Away‘s cover is apt, since the blank Abercrombie & Fitch photo handily reflects Cabrera’s tunefully anonymous food court folk-pop. Yet also like his more boho bro, Cabrera shrewdly uses his resources to transcend banality: Because we saw him play to a half-empty Hollywood Knitting Factory on Ashlee’s show, we feel for him when he complains about “tripping over myself, going nowhere”; because we’ve been party to his and Ashlee’s on-screen contretemps, we know that “deep inside the corner of my mind I’m attached to you.” He watches him watching us and asks, Are you what you are, or what?
Ryan Cabrera plays Irving Plaza February 26 and 27.