Sentimental pop in a simple frame 


"You're looking at me like you understand what I'm about/ but you don't know the half of it, and you don't want to bother finding out," sings Orlando songwriter Jason Hill, striking a nerve somewhere between Brit-folkies Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson, while soaring melodically into sing-song reverie. But on this day, nobody cares. It's the local music showcase at Scruffy Murphy's, and in this particular roomful of temperamental drinking types, Hill seems painfully out of place. Hill's sentimental journey is a far cry from the working man's three-chord grind and might be better appreciated over a shot glass than a pint.

In truth, Hill is an anomaly on the local soundscape -- but a worthwhile one.

"I think I kind of am in opposition to a lot of what's going on around here," Hill says, who's lived here since 1997. "I think there's a perception, at least from without, that there are only two different kinds of music [in] Orlando: roots rock and dance."

Hill's recently released second album, "This Means You," is a rich study of its influences, touching respectfully on the best qualities of each. The swirl of Beach Boy Brian Wilson's loopy mood enhancement meets the resignation of coffee-house media-darling Elliott Smith's dilapidated asides. Costello's heavily intoned bite flips into the love psychedelia of Crowded House-man Neil Finn.

Hill's songs are about empty feelings and missed opportunities more often than not, but they each look up in their pointed observations. And it's all executed with such fine production detail that its humble home-studio origins make it all that more impressive.

"It's like state-of-the-art ... 1966," muses Hill of his flashback recording medium: an eight-track analog tape machine. What results is a classic-pop vibe with an almost haunting sense of clever song craft: simple, timeless. Each song, and its frame, hangs complete as if in some gallery of one man's sentiment.

"There's a lot of confessional songwriting out there right now, and the problem with a lot of it is that there's too much confessing and not enough songwriting," Hill explains, noting the glut of simpering Jewel-types.

"People are putting out too many unorganized feelings. The thing is, the sentiments that you put out are only as good as what you house them in. If it's not something that has a good melody that's going to stick in somebody's head, then what you're trying to get across isn't really going to hang around."

Hill, 30, got his start as a child, playing bass in his father's cover band in the small farming town Alma, Mich., but didn't discover his own personal direction until, at 19, he was whisked away by the Army and stationed in Seoul, Korea. While holed up in military solitude, Hill studied the craft of song structuring -- knowledge culled largely from late-night analysis of his Smiths, Beatles and (of course) Costello collections. He released his debut, "That Embarrassed Feeling," last year. "When I did my first CD ... I really didn't give a damn if anybody heard or not, but I realized that wasn't being very productive," he says.

These days, Hill is promoting his peculiar brand of music with considerably more effort, toiling away at regular low-end gigs in coffeehouses and bookstore cafes, and awaiting deserved notice. But at Scruffy's, where Hill is pulled off the stage a good two songs prior to completion, people still "don't want to bother finding out."


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