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When Gabe Burdulis went to Nashville in November of 2014 he left with a boxful of credentials. Armed with two EPs under his belt (2013’s The Land of Make Believe and 2014’s The Little Things) and enough street cred to start any dialogue immediately, it’s little wonder that he’s already making his mark, and significant inroads, into one of the country’s strongest music centers.
For his fans and peers he is merely carrying on, going to the next level. For Burdulis, however, this is a fresh start. “I feel like I’m only nineteen and I’m already starting over,” he said to me in a recent interview. I had to remind him that there are a whole lot of nineteen-year-olds who have never started anything. In fact, the working title for the album was Starting Over but Burdulis said it made him feel old.
The album was eventually retitled Youth City and is a non-sequential chronicle of the events that have taken place since Burdulis’s arrival in Music City. The first song he wrote there is, in fact, titled “Starting Over,” one Burdulis calls a shoutout to youths everywhere to follow their dreams but really sounds like his manifesto. “I won’t let my head down / No I won’t let my head down / ‘Cause you know it’s never easy / If it’s meant to be…/ I know when you put your heart and soul in / And you believe with all you know / What you give back is pure gold,” he sings over a gorgeous bed of acoustic guitar embellished only by Melodie Morris’s cello. The cello features on the similarly beautiful “Althea,” a song named after Burdulis’s latest love interest and exemplifying his maturity as a songwriter. The Nashville influence can be heard in the banjo (played by Burdulis) which seems a perfect choice for the song.
One of the marks of song craftsmanship is a good departure and return (the bridge). Burdulis agrees saying, “The bridge really ties it together. It’s often the part that can rip your heart out.” Let’s just say that he’s become very effective at ripping your heart out.
Another prominent quality of Youth City is the collaborative process that Burdulis has actively sought out. He teamed up with Erik Kjelland (of Madison band the Mascot Theory) and the two co-wrote “Cold Sweet Tea,” one of the best songs on the recording and one that helped kickstart the project. A free-and-easy full-band song, this one benefits greatly from the organ played by Britt Edwards. Edwards co-produced Youth City with his partner in Center Street Studios, Chris Cameron. The pair handled the recording, mixing and mastering and the results are magnificent, putting Burdulis at a distinct advantage as he works his way up Nashville’s levels of hierarchy. Kjelland also teamed with Burdulis to write the opening track, “Louder,” a kick-ass pop song whose angular construction gives drummer Johnny Reese a chance to shine. “This is War” was written with Adam Bruno whom Burdulis met at a writer’s workshop. Another complex pop song in a full-band format, this one has a very different sound for Burdulis, with an extended bridge and bubbling synthesizer. Mark Elliot, who was working for a publishing house and had worked for SONY, teamed with Burdulis on “Lay it Down,” a soulful mid-tempo rocker with a feel that recalls the Band and features a strong, melodic guitar solo from Burdulis. Cameron gets into the co-writing act on “Dear to Me,” a rollicking two-step that is propelled by tambourine and Edwards’s melodica.
“Mess You Made” lets Burdulis stretch out on the guitar and is the album’s hardest hitter. This one recalls the funk-rock of the Gabe Burdulis Band with snarling tones and tasteful soloing from Burdulis while Edwards’s organ provides solid support. It’s the one spot on the record where Burdulis unleashes his inner Prince.
This record is an important one for Burdulis. It finds him at a critical juncture in his trajectory. The fact that the whole thing was done in about a week is astounding and a testament to his enthusiasm and ambition. Two traits, along with no small measure of bravery, that are sure to pay off in big dividends for this remarkable talent.