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.