Todd Eckart's been around. Jump in the time machine and go back 20 years or more, and you'll find him performing in local coffeehouses on bills with punk bands, standing out like the sorest of thumbs, playing acoustic rockabilly-tinged music as "Hot Toddy." Even then, he was clearly on his own trip and had no discernible interest in modern trends then or now. He seemed like he could've been 25 or 55. In the years since, he's disappeared and reemerged on the local scene a few times, popping up to do tribute shows to artists like Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra or the Everly Brothers and also playing his own material.
He's a traditionalist in the extreme, and it's this approach that is displayed on "Out of the Blue," which, incredibly, is Eckart's debut album. No concessions whatsoever to the last, oh, six or seven decades of popular music are made on the record, and there's a stubbornness about that that is respectable. He's not interested in experimenting with drum machines or synths; he's interested in making music that can get him a gig opening for Roy Orbison during the Nixon administration.
This adherence to "classic" modes of songwriting and performance is nothing if you don't have the right players supporting you, and Eckart made smart choices in selecting people like George Ellsworth and Jimi Cooper to bring his songs to life. Their playing throughout the duration of "Out of the Blue" elevates the whole operation, making it seem like not a first outing, but like that of a band of seasoned veterans supporting Eckart on his 19th record.
The touchstones are obvious - the ones already mentioned are there, as are folks like Elvis Presley, Rick Nelson and Buddy Holly, and Eckart even manages to evoke Chris Isaak, a guy who, 30 years ago, made a career out of ripping off '50s and '60s crooners long after most people were done going for that style. If you're looking for originality, you're not getting that from Eckart.
What you do get, though, is quality songwriting and singing. It's obvious that Eckart is a student of that era of rock and roll and pop music, and he has fully digested all of it. He is the guy he appears to be - a slicked-back, hot-rod guy, but also a sensitive dude. He's the fella in the old biker movies who always shies away from smashing up the bar with his rowdy crew, preferring to brood away from the gang while a girl asks him why he's not like other boys. Who knows why he turned out this way, but here he is, a walking anachronism.
Some of the tunes on "Out of the Blue" are better than others, of course. "Damn Well" is a dark winner, "My Sweet Friend" is an acoustic number with touches of classic country, and "It Makes Her Wonder" finds Eckart going all omniscient-narrator with a female character. It all works, even when the production comes off a bit tinny at times, or when Eckart's vocal takes could've been slightly improved with another pass at a line, or when a nonsensical lyric in an otherwise good song like "Lies don't lie / they only disguise all of the dreams and all of the schemes that we keep inside" threatens the integrity of things.
In the end, though, the bumps on the road are few, and Eckart's long-time-coming debut is successful in that it depicts an old pro completely in his element, armed with songs that, yes, are retro as all get-out, but are also clearly the work of a person who genuinely loves that era of music and wants nothing more than to bring it to life for others.
Artist: Todd Eckart
Album: "Out of the Blue"
Recorded at: 58th Street Studios
Produced by: Todd Eckart
Personnel: Todd Eckart (vocals, acoustic guitar), other guests in various capacities
Upcoming show: 5 p.m. Sunday with Aurora Baer at Clyde Iron Works, 2920 W. Michigan St.