If you've been paying attention, you've known it for a while now: It was only a matter of time before John Ralston broke big. The twentysomething Lake Worth local just might be South Florida's best songwriter many scenesters, including longtime pal and emo hero Chris Carrabba say so. A few years back, his work with Legends of Rodeo elevated the band to modest acclaim and scored a record deal. More recently, touring with Carrabba's Dashboard Confessional exposed his music to arenasfull of kids thirsty for exactly his brand of thoughtful, heartfelt rock 'n' roll. This week, Ralston's 2004 solo debut, Needle Bed, originally put out in limited numbers, is being re-released by L.A.-based Vagrant Records, home to fan faves like Dashboard, Alkaline Trio, and the Lemonheads. It's a major move, and the album proves for the second time that he's more than ready to make it.
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Given his faded denim voice and first-person poeticism, it's easy to pigeonhole Ralston as a mere singer-songwriter. But he's also a phenomenal arranger, conducting his four-piece orchestra across an unfolding landscape of pastoral pop, clear-eyed rock, and dusty Americana. Elegant piano stages dramatic turnarounds, bright horns add luster to somber strings and faraway lap steel. Songs like "Hang A Sign" and "Gone Gone Gone" ambitiously incorporate all of the above to epic effect even within short, three-minute run-times. Others, like the punchy "No One Said This Was Easy" and the gorgeous "When We Were Cats" keep their acoustics spare and direct. Breathy, tender, and bittersweet, Needle Bed feels like a final sunset shared with a departing lover. But Ralston's star, it seems, is just starting to rise. Jonathan Zwickel