CDs sweetness and light pack a wallop
The man certainly doesn't resemble his songs. After several spins through Chris Tsefalas' latest album, 'I'm All Right?' (In Music We Trust), I imagined meeting your basic sensitive Portland hipster type, tugging at his watch cap, sporting a white belt and maybe carrying a little notebook for his observations on cruel humanity.
Instead, Rocky Balboa shows up.
Tsefalas, a native Portlander who's been playing in bands since the late '70s (Crow, Red String, Niven), carries himself like the former welterweight boxer he is, sort of bobbing and weaving in place and using his hands to punctuate a point when he talks.
'I learned a lot about myself boxing,' he says. 'I learned about strength, discipline É and about how there's always someone, on any given day, who can knock you down. And then you have to get up again.'
A similar theme carries over to his album. Recorded at Larry Crane's Jackpot Studio with John Moen (Dharma Bums, Maroons) producing, 'I'm All Right?' was delayed while Tsefalas recovered from several rounds of back surgery, by all accounts a painful ordeal.
Tough guy that he is, Tsefalas doesn't want to make a big deal out of it.
'I'm not looking for sympathy,' he says.
All the same, songs such as the title track and 'Back to Bed' have an autobiographical air of Tsefalas emerging stronger and more determined after extremely difficult times. On 'It's So Clear,' he hopes a 'hit in the head' will clear his thoughts of unwanted distraction and desire.
It's a deceptively simple pop record, one that only gets more rewarding and intriguing with each listen.
'Hope, pain, happiness,' he says. 'Those are the main things that come through, to me, on the record.
'The second song, 'Set Me Up,' is a funny one,' he says. 'It's about how my girlfriend tried to poison me. It wasn't funny at the time, but now É it's kind of funny.'
On the album's best song, 'A Wonderful Ride,' Tsefalas' bittersweet vocal manages to convey a sense of optimism about his life, but it's optimism earned through battle, with the winsome pop chorus undermined by pensive piano.
'It's just a song about sitting on the porch É thinking about things,' he says. 'And getting through another year.'
Tsefalas has a light, airy voice. Coupled with the elegant, economical arrangements and moody, piano-driven waltz tempos, 'I'm All Right?' will doubtless remind some of Elliott Smith Ñ not an unexpected thing, since both Moen and Crane are former Smith colleagues.
Tsefalas credits Moen with helping flesh out his songs.
'John had a lot of melody lines in his head,' he says. 'He would break down each song and figure out how to make them stronger. The vibe stayed the same, the tune stayed the same, the words stayed the same; textures and tones were different.
'It's not just my album. It's John and Larry's album, too.'
But at the end of the day it's Tsefalas standing tall, doing his best to stick and jab those obstacles that never seem to stop coming.
'I'm still here,' he says. 'I'm still working.
'I listen to the album a lot, and I think I got my point across. I got across the things that were in my heart when I wrote the songs.'