On his promising debut, Early in the Morning, Irish singer-songwriter James Vincent McMorrow generally sticks to the conventions set forth by countless other indie-folk troubadours. Though his songs sometimes build to a rousing chorus or even a catchy pop hook or two, McMorrow treads the comfortable, well-worn path of a confessional songwriter in the vein of Iron & Wine, Sufjan Stevens, and Damien Rice. That the musical landscape is already littered with young men with acoustic guitars who all do some slight variation on this same exact thing doesn't do McMorrow any favors, but what he does, he does pretty well.
Pretty, in fact, is probably the operative word to describe McMorrow's record. With his vapor-thin high tenor, McMorrow is blessed with a distinctive and serene instrument, and it's ultimately the loveliness of his voice that distinguishes Early in the Morning from the work of acts like Bon Iver and Mumford & Sons. He conveys a palpable sense of yearning on many of the album's best songs, culminating in a surprising, soulful falsetto on standout "And If My Heart Should Somehow Stop." Opener "If I Had a Boat" (sadly, not a cover of the Lyle Lovett tune of the same name) is a slow burn, as McMorrow's performance incrementally gains confidence and force, and "Sparrow and the Wolf" cuts loose into a double-timed, banjo driven romp.
Each of these songs invites comparisons to other artists, and it's clear that McMorrow has studied what works about many of the songwriters whose styles inform his work. In particular, Sufjan Stevens's mastery of manipulating song structure figures into the tempo and dynamic shifts on "This Old Dark Machine" and the unexpected key change in "And If My Heart Should Somehow Stop," making those two of McMorrow's most effective songs. Not all of the songs are quite so polished: A catchy melody can't overcome the clichéd turns of phrase on "Breaking Hearts," and closer "Early in the Morning, I'll Come Calling" comes off as slight rather than minimalist. Still, McMorrow's smart approach to his craft and his exquisite voice counterbalance what Early in the Morning lacks in originality and refinement.