Aiken is best known around town as a late addition to the Buffalo Tom line-up who brought keyboards to the bandís wall-of-Marshall sound and a more refined, dynamic approach to the former trioís earnest and moody alterna-rock just as singer/songwriters Bill Janovitz and Chris Colbourn seemed in desperate need of new musical inspiration. Unfortunately, like Bother Cleve with the Del Fuegos in the í80s, Aiken had more or less boarded a sinking ship. And not even his Benmont Tenchian organ fills and piano runs could hope to plug all the holes in Buffalo Tomís once-staunch confidence, holes developed over the course of endless struggle with labels and lack of airplay as the í90s wound down. Fortunately, with Buffalo Tom on indefinite hiatus, Aiken had plenty of time on his hands to gather an impressive cast of local players ó including bassists Josh Lattanzi, Ed Valauskas, and Paul Kolderie, drummer Tom Polce, mandolinist Jimmy Ryan, Bill Janovitz, and background singer Chris Toppin ó for a solid solo debut that isnít easily pinned down. For starters, while Aiken plays a variety of keyboards, the disc opens with guitar leading the way through the moody rocker "Lose Yourself." Acoustic guitar and piano pair up on "Rear View," a lighter-hearted pop tune outfitted with artful vocal harmonies and a tasteful guitar solo. Thereís a definite rootsy sensibility to Aikenís songwriting, but this is heartland rock thatís light on the twang and heavy on the kind of comfortably torn and frayed roots progressions that fit like your favorite pair of Leviís. And, if Aiken doesnít quite distinguish himself as a lead vocalist, heís more than competent, and his knack for keeping the arrangements interesting tends to distract from any of the less compelling vocal moments.
(Phil Aiken celebrates the release of Donít Look Down this Monday, February 17, at T.T. the Bearís Place, with Chris Colbourn, Hilken Mancini, and Derek Schanche.)