Arian Saleh at Rockwood Music Hall, New York

arian saleh, rockwood music hallA nice voice and solid guitar have become a standard for the American singer-songwriter, and rightfully so. But this criteria have also become a prison for many performers, locking them into a style or approach that can’t grow or deviate too much (see: most reality TV singing winners). Arian Saleh avoids this pitfall with aplomb; the young Iranian-American performer has his own style and a backup band with flair.

Joined by his album band, Arian took the small stage at Rockwood just as the sun started to set on SoHo. His voice makes a singular impression, a mix of Donovan, some of the more melodic Magnetic Field songs, and Sondre Lerche. He’s trained himself to hit notes and construct melodies without over-exerting himself. His cellist, Dave Eggar, is bouncy and takes on the rhythm guitar role ably. Alternating between hand percussion and soft snare, Chuck Wild set a great tone for the set, emphasizing a soft style. Mr. Saleh clearly has a good sense of arrangement, or at least surrounds himself with people that do.

Arian worked through a few pieces from his new album, Undone. The title track is more mournful than you’d expect from what is ostensibly a rock album, and several other tracks, including “Antoinette,” are angrier or sadder than those of Arian’s counterparts or peers. There were even times when his tenor voice seemed to wail in sorrow, even outside the minor chord. Arian follows a new wave of artist intent on making serious music, but still making pleasant and even fun melodies. His set also included a sort of joke-y track about escaping into outer space, as well as fairly funky tracks. The band’s range is wide, and every solo actually seemed appropriate.

Arian’s website mentions a grandmother who was a famous Iranian opera singer, and this influence is still audible in the soft percussion, strolling cello, and an enthusiastic, even klezmer-like guitar. None of this overwhelms Arian’s personal style, though, and the listener never gets the sense that the novelty of his arrangements is intrinsically Iranian or American. My only ambivalence about Arian Saleh concerns his lyrics. While some are funny and others are romantic, nothing seems to gel as powerful or overtly entertaining lyrically. Thankfully, his voice and music more than make up for it, but I hope his lyrics stand out more as his career continues.