Friday, November 19, 2010

Review of Lee DeWyze's Post-American Idol Debut "Live it Up"

Full disclosure:  I was not a fan of Lee DeWyze during American Idol.  His consistent inability to sing on key -- coupled with the judges' refusal to mention that obvious flaw -- irked me to no end.  It was frustrating for me because his is the type of voice I usually like -- the Adam Durst, scratchy growl.  At times I thought he had a great tone to his voice and moments of greatness that were within his reach, but mostly I felt that he failed to show that he had any star power. 

But I am approaching this album with an open mind because I am first and foremost a music fan.  Indeed, in an earlier post, I mentioned that I liked the first single, Sweet Serendipity.  So, here's my song-by-song review of my first listen to "Live it Up." 

The first song is the title track, Live it Up (written by DeWyze, Toby Gad, and Lindy Robbins). Simply put, the song is pretty good.  It has to overcome a "Smooth Jazz" opening that is a little off-putting.  His voice definitely has its moments and the tune is catchy and memorable.  A great hook can make up for a lot!  I like Sweet Serendipity (written by DeWyze, David Glass and Jordan Lawhead) less on the second hearing than I did the first time. The verbally-packed chorus is more cacophonous than clever and I still can't get over my aversion to the cutesy sibilantly alliterative title.  It's not so bad that you would change stations, which makes it a good pick for a single, but it's not substantial enough to pull in any new fans.

It's Gotta Be Love (written by DeWyze, Espen Lind, Amund Bjorklund and Claude Kelly)  is almost saved by DeWyze's voice on the phrase "call me crazy," but aside from that high point, the rest of the song is fluff. The instrumentation and syncopation are too cheesy for me.  It's a lightweight pop ditty that is interchangeable with every other simple, generic love song. Written by DeWyze, Gad and Robbins, Dear Isabelle, aka Hey There Delilah, has a deja vu, I've heard this before and grow sick of it already, feel to it. You think someone associated with the album would have heard the Plain White T's song often enough to know this was not original and would not avoid comparison.

Beautiful Like You (written by Thomas Salter and Andy Stochansky) has a nice piano intro, and DeWyze's voice almost pulls it off, but that breathless quality becomes distracting and I'm overwhelmed with the urge to mail him an inhaler. He just sounds off on this song, flat and weak. The chorus is pretty good, if the engineer had only taken the drums down a couple notches. The less said about Stay Here (written by DeWyze, Lind, Bjorklund and Kelly), the better.

Next up was Me and My Jealousy (written by DeWyze, John Shanks and Zac Maloy).  I liked this song, the pretty piano, the Coldplay feel. It was reminiscent of some other song, but I can't put my finger on it.  It had a nice sweeping, epic feel to it.  But DeWyze's voice is not really up for the challenge of such a big song and the cracks in his voice aren't endearing but irritating.  Brooklyn Bridge  (written by DeWyze, Gad and Robbins) is a great Billy Joel song.  You can see DeWyze sitting behind a baby grand in a smoky bar somewhere upstate New York in 1955.  So, not the most modern, relevant of songs.  And could have done without the humming. 

There is too obvious a joke for a song called Weightless (written by DeWyze, Shanks and Maloy).  DeWyze's voice is thin and reedy, the instrumentation at the beginning reminds me of a poor man's version of Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwo'ole's ukulele version of Over the Rainbow, and the lyrics are unsophisticated.  I'd like to say I didn't like The Day the Earth Stood Still (written by DeWyze, Gad and Robbins) because I found DeWyze's vocal just as weak and unsatisfying as elsewhere on the record.  But I found myself bopping in my chair to the song, so I have to admit that poor vocals, silly lyrics and basic instrumentation aside, I enjoyed it. But if you think I'm being too harsh on DeWyze, listen to his sustained notes at the end of that song.  His vocals need a lot of work.

The last song is A Song about Love (written by DeWyze, David Hodges and Michael Busbee) and it is a nice way to close the album.  The song has a lovely melody.  This could be a hit if the vocals were re-recorded (a little autotune couldn't hurt).  I really like the simple production, just the acoustic guitar, some piano, and a background vocal, and the vocals are almost there.  On a second listen, I liked the song even more.

Sadly, the problem with the album was the problem with Lee DeWyze during his surprisingly successful American Idol run.  When his voice is on, when he is not breathless, off-key or cracking, it's terrific.  It has a great tone and great raspy sound.  But when it's off, it is really unpleasant to listen to and makes some decent songs actually sound worse than they probably are.  Unfortunately, on much of this album, the vocals are not there.  I wonder if this is at all due to the fact that the album was recorded while they were touring.  Perhaps if they had given his voice time to rest, it would not have sounded so weak on the record.

It seems that the primary goal of this album was to not scare any existing fans away.  There's nothing inherently wrong with making a pleasing, approachable, mainstream record, so I won't fault anyone for there being no envelope pushing in this record.  It was an opportunity for Lee to start expressing who he is and what he wants to share with an audience.  I hope he gets another chance and pays more attention to how he uses his voice. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Disappointing Reviews/Sales for Lee DeWyze's Album

"American Idol Winner" was how Lee DeWyze wanted to be known. But that mantle has proven to be as much an albatross as a gold medal for those on the receiving end. While some winners have had great success as recording artists, most notably Carrie Underwood, others have seen winning the television show as the one and only high point of their musical careers.

It’s too early to say whether DeWyze, winner of Season 9, will be another Taylor Hicks, turning to Broadway to stay in the game, or whether he will have the long-term mainstream music success of Kelly Clarkson. But initial reaction to his post-Idol debut CD, Live it Up, does not bode well.

According to HeadlinePlanetNews, preliminary estimates show his CD as selling around 45,000 units its first week, the worst sales numbers for any American Idol winner. According to an article in Zap2It, following the release last year of Kris Allen’s first CD, Season 8 was the first year that the winner sold fewer that 100,000 units.  But as poor as Allen’s anemic 85,000 units sold seemed last year, DeWyze’s numbers are far worse.   Here are the rankings for first post-Idol album sales by each of the winners:

1. Ruben Studdard, "Souful," 400,000+
2. Carrie Underwood, "Some Hearts," 315,000
3. Taylor Hicks, "Taylor Hicks," 298,000
4. Kelly Clarkson, "Thankful," 297,000
5. David Cook, "David Cook," 279,000
6. Fantasia Barrino, "Free Yourself," 240,000
7. Jordin Sparks, "Jordin Sparks," 119,000
8. Kris Allen, "Kris Allen," 85,000
9. Lee DeWyze, "Live it Up," 45,000

And it is not just sales that are disappointing. The reviews for "Live it Up" far have also been underwhelming, with reviewers wondering if the album was rushed to capitalize on DeWyze’s win and suggesting it has been homogenized and watered down in an effort to offend no one.  Of course, the reviews haven't been universally negative.  Newsday liked the album, saying DeWyze "crafted the best post-"Idol" debut since Carrie Underwood."  IGN Music said the album does a nice job of balancing grit and warmth.  And while Hitfix mostly panned the album, the reviewer praised Beautiful Like You, interestingly, the only song DeWyze didn’t co-write.

Crystal Bowersox cheerleader Michael Slezak of Entertainment Weekly not surprisingly gave the record a “C” and called it generic. USMagazine gave it 1 ½ stars and, riffing off of the frequent description of DeWyze as a “paint salesman” (despite his two previous records), called it “as exciting as, well, watching paint dry.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel online said “it tacks toward the safe and bland.” Even his hometown paper the Chicago Sun Times was pretty mean-spirited in their review, giving the album one star and saying, “Live It Up"? Curling up on the couch and flipping between PBS and C-SPAN would be more exciting." While their competitor, the Chicago Tribune, found the album something they could agree on, giving it just 2 out of 4 stars, saying it “sounds like it was created in a laboratory; it’s designed to be inoffensive, clinically precise, airless.” called it “a musical form of Ikea.” 

In fairness to DeWyze, it has become cool to malign American Idol and its contestants recently and many reviewers would not be caught dead praising an Idol contestants record out of fear of losing their street cred.  Plus, the type of album usually  put out by the winner is often safe and inoffensively mainstream as the target audience is American Idol viewers, not necessarily music fans.  Despite DeWyze's comments before its release about writing every song on the album and having so much input, the bottom line is that every song was written by committee and the product released was meant not to inspire and excite, but to put at ease.

The good news for DeWyze is that he has fans and they have come out in support of him, posting positive comments on where his album has been reviewed 26 times and is rated 4.5 stars. Not being in possession of a review copy, I’m relegated to listening to the sample clips on Amazon and that is not enough on which to base a review.  I did hear all of Sweet Serendipity and gave it a generally positive review, which you can read here.

From what little I've heard on the rest of the tracks, however, I am a little surprised by the sound of his voice. On Idol, while DeWyze consistently struggled to stay on key, the tone of his voice was decent and nicely Daughtry-esque. But what I’ve heard so far is not that rough-around-the-edges sound, but a more inconsistent and unappealing John Mayer with a bad head cold sound. And the songs, with the exception of Beautiful Like You, all have a Jason Mraz-like inoffensive/pop quality that is pretty forgettable.

American Idol Season 9 runner-up Crystal Bowersox will have her first post-Idol album released next month.  There was some early grumbling, from Bowersox, that the first single (Hold On, co-written by Kara Dioguardi) was not what she wanted.  But recent news appears to indicate that she is getting her way and that her original, pre-Idol song Farmer's Daughter will be the album' first single.  I hope for her sake that the album was not subject to the same amount of white washing as DeWyze's apparently was and her talent is allowed to shine through.  I'll go on record, however, that Hold On was a good song and probably would have sold well.  It'll be interesting to see if the less radio-friendly, more folky Farmer's Daughter is a commercial success.  It's already been a favorite among her fans.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

How This Blog Got Its Name

I adopted the handle "BurnThis" as soon as I ventured into cyberspace and realized I had to have a name that was anonymous yet meaningful.  I'm no arsonist and, though I'm passionate about poker, the phrase did not come from the 'burn" cards.  No, Burn This is an homage to my favorite playwright, Lanford Wilson.

Lanford Wilson is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer of such plays as Talley's Folly, Fifth of July, Hot L Baltimore and Balm in Gilead.  I first was exposed to his plays during a high school production of Rimers of Eldritch (as one of my readers should be intimately aware).  There was an immediacy and passion in his writing that spoke to my teen self and continued to move me as I proceed through young adulthood. 

Wilson writes about real things, love and loss, families and friends, trust and betrayal.  But he does so with realistic humor as well as pathos.  In his sixteenth play, which debuted in 1986, he dealt with the aftermath of a young man's suicide on his friends and family.  The title of the play, Burn This, comes from a line by one of the characters, Burton, a screenwriter, who says, "Make it personal, tell the truth, and then write "Burn this" on it."  It was later described, by NY Times reviewer Alvin Klein, as the idea that "as soon as a writer puts his most private feelings on paper, he must destroy the evidence at once. That would be the self-preserving thing to do."

I related to that idea.  The need to put things down, to bare my soul, and yet to immediately wipe away any evidence.  The feelings need to be expressed, but they are too real, too raw to be shared or admitted it.  For whatever reason, writers need to write.  They -- may I be so bold as to say we? -- need to articulate our feelings with words on a page.  Feeling them or saying them are not enough, there is something necessary about the tactile experience of putting it down in some physical form and about the visual experience of seeing the words in front of us.  But then the feeling comes over you, as Michael Stipe once sang, "Oh, no, I've said too much."  So you're tempted to light a match and destroy the evidence.

Wilson expressed his deepest feelings in writing and had the courage not to destroy it but, instead, share it with the world in some 22 plays.  He addressed issues of real depth and meaning and his plays are as significant  and timely now as they were when he originally wrote them.  With the recent media attention on gay bullying and suicides, a play like the semi-autobiographical Lemon Sky could help turn the spotlight on these issues.  In it, the main character is a high school graduate coming to terms with how his coming out of the closet affects his family, most notably his hostile, resentful father.

It may be ironic that while my favorite author is hyper-capitalist Ayn Rand, my favorite playwright is the far to the left Lanford Wilson.  But, I am drawn to the feelings of alienation and disillusionment that his characters explore and the significant role of family in their struggles.  He may trumpet the misfits and lower classes, but he still imbues them with humanity and grace and purpose.  He has written during a period of great change for America and his plays can help us navigate through those rough waters.  I feel better for having read his works and seen his plays and I hope they continue to influence and educate further generations.

Now that I've said all this...

Burn this.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What Do Artists Owe Their Fans?

R.E.M. has a line from the song E-Bow the Letter, written in the mid-90s, that I find very meaningful in its simplicity.  Stipe sings, "This fame thing, I don't get it."  Not being famous, I have no way of knowing what it must be like to be recognized wherever you go.  For people to talk about you and write about you who don't actually know you.  For people to care about every small detail of your life.  It's weird, for lack of a better word.  And it can be intoxicating or unsettling or both for the person on the receiving end.

I'm also reminded of a line written some twenty years earlier by Jackson Browne, "I don't know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels."  Artists, like athletes, have a unique position in that what they do for love and money, their career choice, their avocation, puts them in the public eye whether or not that was the goal. They go out on a stage or a field or a stadium and are cheered or booed or both by mostly complete strangers.  That is to be expected.  They know that you cannot make a living without someone who supports what you are doing, so fans are a necessary part of the equation.  But what do you owe those fans who support you and enable you to continue to make your records or play your sport?

Before I go on, let me clarify that I am separating artists from celebrities those who seek the spotlight as an end in itself, see, for example, Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.  Being famous, living that crazy life, is something they sought, something they expected, something they continue to want.  By contrast, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt may be celebrities, but their initial goal was simply to perform.  The celebrity, and the problems that come with it, came later.

In the old days (before I was even born, so you know we're going back a bit), artists had little direct contact with their fans.  Their public image was mostly controlled by the studios or labels that owned their contract and the media, which was so much smaller then, was mostly a party in scripting the prearranged public image.  When I was growing up, the highlight of my "celebrity" encounter was getting Johnny Bench's autograph as I leaned over the dugout at Dodger Stadium or seeing Van Morrison in the parking lot after a concert.  I never expected to communicate with them or hear from them on a regular basis.

But with the advent of social media, many artists and others have taken to MySpace or Facebook or Twitter to communicate with fans.  Personally, I wonder if some of the magic is lost.  When I was younger, I looked forward to the next Springsteen release without having him tweet "just wrote Dancing in the Dark, think it'll be a hit."  I didn't need to hear from Alan Alda that he was excited for the tenth year of M*A*S*H or from Steven Spielberg that the mechanical shark was acting up on his new film.  I didn't need to have a personal relationship with the artists or athletes I liked.  But now we expect to have that connection because it is so easy to do.  But as we parents tell our children, or at least should, just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should.

So what do artists owe their fans?  How much of their life should the fans be entitled to?  I'm not sure they owe us anything other than what each of us owes each other -- respect.  They should put out their best effort and be honest (so athletes shouldn't take performance enhancing drugs or cheat, artists shouldn't steal or pass someone else's work as their own).  They can choose to communicate with us and we can choose whether or not we want to hear what they have to say, but it should not be expected or demanded. 

I'm fine with Michael Stipe not tweeting where he is today or putting out a Facebook post about his upcoming album.  I'll eventually get the information, either from more mainstream routes like interviews or by going way old school and just waiting for it to come out and listening to it.  I'm also fine with Trent Reznor tweeting about his new album if that's what he wants to do.  Neither approach is better, and neither will make their respective albums any better.  All I feel they owe me -- if anything at all -- is the best album they can make.