Shawn McDonald: The Analog Sessions

Release Date: Mar 26, 2013

I consider myself something of a Shawn McDonald “insider”. That is to say, I was “there” in the early days. It was probably early 2002, my business partner returned from a trip to Seattle with a CD-R labeled “Shawny Mac” featuring the music of a former drug-addict, acoustic-guitar-playing rapper. And it was good, in a really raw sense, for what it was.

Fast forward three years and I’m in an unfamiliar church. After the service I hear music over the PA that sounds familiar… Hey! Someone else knows Shawny Mac. Turns out he got a record deal and adopted the far more mature moniker of Shawn McDonald. That record, Simply Nothing, featured several of the songs I was familiar with but the presentation was a lot smoother. It was still raw, natural, intimate, and immediate – just better production.

Subsequent albums saw The Mac drop much of the rapping and turn to a more CCM sound complete with subdued instrumentation and mellower melodies. He lost me there.
This record, The Analog Sessions, purports itself as a collection of re-recordings of some of his most popular songs (and a couple of new ones) all recorded in analog on old retro gear. A fun premise, far better than the much despised “Greatest Hits”. [One must be careful not to set his hopes too high, however, for the once-great Bon Jovi attempted this a decade ago with disastrous results.]

On the whole, the album delivers. The production is fantastic. I didn’t find any definitive statement, but it sure feels as though the instrumentation was recorded live in studio. You can almost imagine the band looking at one another for cues and finding the groove together. In another sense, it feels as though someone just put a tape deck down in the middle of the room at band practice. In addition, the vocals sit really high in the mix which serves to elevate the lyrics – a welcomed change from recent recordings.

The bulk of the instrumentation is built around an acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and Rhodes keyboard which makes for a very Bill Withers type of sound, especially on the opening track “Eyes Forward.” Throughout the record, however, you hear some less expected instruments creep in: mandolin, accordion, even banjo. It may not seem like a big deal and they are all played expertly and mixed well, however, it seems to make the artist’s statement a little muddled. I came away not really knowing who he is. Because of the nature of the record, though, I’m going to give him a pass. Though not exactly a “vanity project”, this is a chance to experiment and play around.

The song selection is very curious to me. Of the 13 tracks, 2 are new (“What Are You Waiting For”, “Through it All”) – and they are excellent, 4 are from his fourth album Closer, 4 are from his first album Simply Nothing, 1 is from his third album Roots, and album number two, Ripen, is wholly unaccounted for. In case you’re wondering, the other two tracks are radio edits – oh, just you wait, we’ll address those in due time.

The four most recent songs remain largely unchanged and really just seem like acoustic versions of what was previously released. As is often the habit on these types of projects, the oldest songs – some of them at least a decade old – get the most reworking. While these don’t turn out bad, three of the four do seem a bit forced. The syncopated, bluegrassy beat of “Gravity” is a particularly poor choice. Perhaps the biggest win on the record is “Beautiful” that propels itself forward with simply piano, bass, and snare. My only minor complaint is that the vocal fails to reach the level of desperation that it showed on the original take.

Remember those radio edits I mentioned? This is what’s wrong with the record industry. “Oh, you want to put out a laid back, acoustic record? That’s cool. But people love drum loops and synthesizers. You do your hipster acoustic stuff, but we’re going to remix two of the songs, strip all the love out of the vocals, bury them in the mix, and then release those versions to radio.” The radio edit songs are the new songs and they probably will get decent radio play. They aren’t bad, but it’s just a terrible commentary on the industry.

In the end, the record is really solid. It allows great songs to take on a timeless quality that they may have been robbed of the first time out. I wish the older songs had stayed more intact, but I understand the need to do something different after playing them the same way for 10 years. I can only hope that the next studio effort will maintain the same type of momentum and not return to the sound that some guy in a suit has determined is “safe for the whole family.”

Justin Timberlake: The 20/20 Experience

Release Date: Mar 19, 2013

I wanted to believe that “Suit & Tie” was just a fluke and that the rest of the album would be better. “Mirrors” made me believe this to be true. (Honestly, though, you’re best served to just go download “Mirrors” and ignore the rest.) I thought that the lackluster early reviews were just a bunch of haters.  I. Was. Wrong.

It’s not that this album is (or any of the other recent let-downs have been) BAD, per se. They have just been so forgettable.

Now, to be fair, I appreciate an artist who has the freedom to make the record that they have a vision for. There aren’t too many folks who have the opportunity to both make money and make art. Many forgo the dollars for the freedom (Derek Webb, Charlotte Church, Hanson). Others simply accept the money and make a life out of it (Justin Beiber, One Direction). But there are a few that languished through the shackles of a major label contract long enough to establish their own creative freedom with a fan base that will allow them to maintain their lifestyle (Green Day, Timberlake). So, I appreciate a guy who is making his own art and not someone else’s version of it. But that’s about as far as I’ll go.

One of my biggest problems with this record (and it may make me a “prude”) is the extensive use of drug terminology. Honestly, I can’t tell if he’s comparing his girl’s love to the effects of a drug, or if he’s so in love with his drugs that he’s singing them love songs.  “Pusher Love Girl” has a good flow to it and is fairly catchy, but it’s so ambiguous. Then the post-chorus tag is just blatantly drug themed. Even if he is singing about his girl, the explicit nature of the drug lingo blurs the line way too much. What happened to good, ambiguous drug songs that everyone could sing along to?

It took a good long while for his first two records to grow on me, so it may be the same with this one, but I’ve given it several listens at this point. Tracks 1 and 2 are at least somewhat catchy, then the next 4 songs basically just devolve. Yet, I can’t keep myself from grooving to them at points. I love the melodies and vocals, but the beats and lyrics are just so obscure or obtuse that they fail to connect with me. There’s a fun little one second N*SYNC throwback at the very end of “Strawberry Bubblegum” (Track 4). “That Girl” is a breath of fresh air in the middle of the record but it is oddly intro’d by a segment that better belongs at the beginning of the record – and it’s vastly inferior to the intro on Justified (“he’s a friend o’ mine” “yes, yes I am”).

“Let the Groove Get In” is a train wreck fit for Paula Abdul. I think there is a verse to it, but I can’t even make it out through all of the chanting. “Mirrors” is a near-masterpiece. I would hate the tag at the end if it wasn’t so darn endearing. (PS – Why does this track remind me of All-4-One?) But the record ends on a wandering, weirdness that seems to sample the sounds of a breathing machine and someone continually opening a cassette tape player (??).

I want to give this record the benefit of the doubt. I want to believe it is the misguided wanderings of a man who is so in love with his new wife (who will truly prove to be the “love of [his] life”) that he just doesn’t know how to express it fully. In a way, that’s beautiful. I’m afraid however, is that they guy just got in the studio with his buddies, got high, and said “that sounds good.” Surely, this latter roadmap has served many artists in the past and created many a masterpiece. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work here.

[UPDATE: This morning (3/18) Rolling Stone is quoting The Roots’ ?uestlove as stating that Volume 2 of The 20/20 Experience will be released later this year.]

Jay-Z: The Blueprint

Release Date: September 11, 2001 (I didn’t realize that until I wrote this review.)

I took one performance to change my view of rap music. Prior to it, I was probably “ambivalent” at best. Then I watched Jay-Z on MTV unplugged, complete with The Roots, a string quartet, and backup singers.I was impressed throughout the program that Jay was able to edit himself and keep the program fit for TV. About halfway through “Song Cry” my ears perked as I noticed him start to let a little bit of language slip. And then I saw this transcendent moment of a songwriter being exposed on the stage in the same way you might see a guy with a guitar in a coffee shop. And in that moment I realized that rap artists are artists indeed and that their music has meaning. When I finally got to dig into the song more it cemented itself as one of my all-time favorite tracks.

I’ll admit: I may be biased due to the fact that this is the first rap record that I was really exposed to. That being said, I think it’s the best rap record ever. (There’s a pretty vocal contingent that wants to say that Illmatic is the greatest ever, but I just can’t even get past the first track on that album. And I may still be biased since Jay takes Nas to school on The Blueprint.) Every rapper tries to claim that they are the best in the business but few can back it up. Many records claim to be the blueprint (even Jay-Z tried to claim it twice after this) but this is the only one that lives up to the title. In fact, it appears on numerous year’s best, decade’s best, and even all time greatest albums lists. It’s a very big statement, but I would nearly say that it is to rap music what Pet Sounds is to Rock and Roll.

With 15 tracks (2 “hidden”) only 2 are flat out duds – “Hola Hovito” and “All I Need”. The rest of the album is a master’s class in songwriting.

The album begins with an homage to Slick Rick (“The Ruler’s Back”) followed by the aforementioned beatdown of NAS and several others (“Takeover”). Probably the most well-known track on the album (and arguably the track the validated and launched the career of Kanye West) is the West-produced “Izzo (H.O.V.A)” a semi-biographical story with a phenomenal hook. Another Yeezy-produced gem is “Heart of the City” where Hova laments the way things have changed in the ghetto and in rap music.

I’ve spoken before (twice now, even) about my love of The Temptations and David Ruffin so it should come as no surprise that the album-track “Never Change” which samples Ruffin is one of my personal favorites. Another deep track “Renegade” – written by, produced by, and featuring Eminem – is likewise great, if you can handle Eminem. In my opinion, it is one of Em’s best performances in his entire catalog as far as intensity and delivery is concerned, though the lyric is quite harsh.

I like both versions of “Girls, Girls, Girls” (Track 3 and Hidden Track 2). I’m not 100% certain where I land on which one is better, they both have their own spin. It’s exciting and intriguing to me to hear two different versions of the same concept but with completely different lyrics, beats, samples, and producers. This contradiction highlights the collaborative artistic nature of hiphop music and the influence that the producer has on the artist.

PS – Spin Magazine posted a Jay-Z Remix album this week that had an amazing re-work of “Song Cry” [explicit].

Audio Adrenaline: Kings and Queens

[Legacy Content]

Release Date: Mar 12, 2013

The year was 1996. I was finally finding friends at my new school (of course I would leave a year later, but that’s not the point). The fact is, my life was impacted for years to come when my friend Ryan loaned me two CDs – dcTalk’s Jesus Freak and Audio Adrenaline’s bloOm. These two records marked a turning point in my young life that would eventually lead me down a path of working in the same music business, making the suggestion that a band I was working with should record with former Audio A guitarist Barry Blair, and having that same friend who loaned me those records serve as my best man eleven years later. So, it was with much pause and reverence for the past, a glimmer of nostalgia, and a whole lot of lowered-expectations that I approached this record…

When a band brings in a new lead singer, several things are likely to happen: A) Something totally new is born (Audioslave) B) The band takes on the lead singer’s voice and style (Dio-era Black Sabbath) C) The fans revolt (Van Hagar) D) Everyone brings their best to the table and finds a way to honor the past and move forward into the present (Queen + Paul Rodgers).

There are few artists in all of music, Christian music in particular, with a voice as unique as Kevin Max. When you hear him, you know it’s him. And there are few bands in Christian music with as much history, accolades, and warm-fuzzy memories as Audio Adrenaline. When I first heard of the combination, I laughed out loud. I thought there was no way you could take two things that were so pre-defined, put them together, and be taken seriously… but they did!

So, how did they do it? Well, for one thing, they built a new band from the ground up (only bass player Will McGuiness returns as a member of the band). So the other members aren’t bringing in any tenured right to say how things should be. By all accounts, they are fans as much as anyone else. Second, they kept founding lead singer Mark Stewart involved. This is the piece of info that changed my mind. Not only does Stewart serve as an ad-hoc creative director and songwriter, he sneaks a tiny, but oh so special, vocal into the song “King of the Comebacks.”

Backstory: I’m not sure how much you know about this, I was fairly unaware myself. Back in 2007, the band called it quits due to Stewart’s ongoing vocal troubles. Personally, I had parted ways with the band back at the dawn of the decade, so I had no idea that on their final studio album (2005’s Until My Heart Caves In) then-guitarist Tyler Burkum had handled the bulk of the vocal duties. So, it’s not as though they broke up due to irreconcilable differences or anyone had been kicked out, they just literally couldn’t do it anymore.

My biggest concern with this record is making sure that it lives up to the Audio Adrenaline name. So, the question I asked myself all along the way was: “Can I hear Mark Stewart singing this?” For the first half of the record, the answer is unequivocally, “yes.” The music and the lyrics are “Audio Adrenaline.” It is positive, engaging, gets you moving, and it has catchy, strong hooks. The lead single “Kings and Queens” is an epic anthem (but they could have used a real string section to make it more epic). The aforementioned Stewart cameo comes on “King of the Comebacks” which has really grown on me.

The second half of the record diverges a bit. “Raise the Banner” and “Fire Never Sleeps” are more reminiscent of Kevin Max’s solo work. “Raise the Banner” is a reggae-influenced rocker whose inclusion of the term “I and I” may ruffle some conservative feathers. I’m convinced that for “I Climb the Mountain,” the band broke into U2’s studio and stole their master tapes for a new record. Vocally, lyrically, and musically this is Bono and the Edge (and there’s nothing wrong with that). The two remaining songs, “Seeker” and “The Answer” really set a pace for what a future album by this collective could sound like. They showcase KMax being KMax and the band stretching its legs to not necessarily sound like its forefathers.

Kevin Max can be an acquired taste. If you’re like me and acquired it on the first listen to dc Talk’s Jesus Freak some 15+ years ago, then you’ll have no problems. If you were never a fan of dc Talk but are a die-hard AudioA fan, it may take you awhile to come on board. What I absolutely love about Kevin’s voice on this record, specifically on the first five songs, is that he really opens up his range and goes after some of those notes that we haven’t heard from him in the last 15 years or so.

On my first pass at this record, it was simply nostalgia and curiosity; then it became a deep analysis of what was really happening here. After about three days, though, I just liked it. I wanted to hear it just because it is good. The songs kept running through my head and I found myself running back to the music.

There is a behind-the-scenes documentary that is available if you pre-order from the band’s website. I haven’t seen it, but I can’t imagine that it contains too much more than what you can find on the Videos page of their site. The band has confirmed tour dates for March and April. We should probably assume that they will hit the festival scene this summer and I’m sure that more than a few folks are hoping to see Audio A (KMax), Toby Mac, and The Newsboys (Michael Tait) on the same bill. Magic may ensue…

The Temptations: 50th Anniversary Singles Collection

Release Date: September 13, 2011

When I was in high school, I caught the first broadcast of the television miniseries The Temptations. I recorded it on VHS and watched it countless times until I got my hands on the DVD which I’ve watched even more. Growing up listening to the local oldies station, I was familiar with songs like “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “My Girl”. Watching the tragic story of this magnificent group play out on screen, however, really formed a deep bond for me and cemented me as a fan of their music.

Now, I’m not expecting anyone to go out and buy this 3 CD (81 track) opus, but it does warrant our discussion. For most classic artists, you’re relegated to either picking up an album with a couple of winners and another 8-9 flops – or, you pick up a greatest hits and really lose the context of those songs in their original form. I love this collection because it is all of their singles for a decade, some winners and some losers. Back in the 50s and 60s, music was more about the single than the album so you would be hard pressed to go out and find a record by anyone from that era that was pure gold. With the Temps, the only album that I could look toward was In a Mellow Mood which is really not indicative of their typical sound. This collection, however, showcases those greatest hits along with the numerous misses along the way.

The group was formed in Detroit in 1960 when Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams (The Primes) joined forces with Otis Williams, Al Bryant and Melvin Franklin (The Distants). They were able to land a deal with Berry Gordy’s Motown Records and pushed out a string of flops until they replaced Bryant with one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th century, David Ruffin. And the rest is history. See, if you bought that greatest hits record, it would launch with “The Way You Do The Things You Do”, the group’s first Top 20 hit. But that means you would miss three incredible tracks: “Mother of Mine”, “Paradise”, and one of Paul Williams’ best vocals on “I Want a Love I Can See.”

Even after the success of “Things You Do,” the group faltered until Ruffin stepped into the spotlight on “My Girl” (their first Pop #1). From then on, the bulk of their most recognizable hits were helmed by Ruffin until his departure. These would include those “greatest” hits “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “I Wish it Would Rain” (my personal favorite from their entire catalog). But, again, you would miss some great tracks like “Get Ready”  featuring Eddie Kendricks.

David Ruffin was replaced by Dennis Edwards who (some could say) garnered the group its greatest recognition in the form of a Grammy Award for “Cloud Nine”, which was one of the groups best opportunities to showcase every voice on one track. From their it was ups and downs with a few standouts such as “Can’t Get Next to You”, “Ball of Confusion”, and a laughable cover of The Band’s “The Weight.” With much turmoil hanging over the band, Kendricks and Williams recorded their most incredible duet “Just My Imagination” which would be their last single as part of the group and Williams final hit before his self-inflicted death at age 34.

“Just My Imagination” is the last big hit included on this collection, but in many ways it would be the groups last big hit, period. The one final single of note (not included on this set) would be “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” – notable for the featured work of Richard Street and Damon Harris who both passed just last month.

The group would re-unite, break up, induct new members, re-welcome old members and even work with the magical mustache of Hall and Oates throughout the 70s-80s-90s. Aside from Distants founding member Otis Williams, all other founding members have passed and most from tragic circumstances. While the shell of a group that exists today may carry on the legacy in name, none will ever measure up to the “classic five” of Williams, Ruffin, Kendricks, Williams, and Franklin.

I just had to include this because Paul owns this record.

Charlotte Church: Two

Release Date: Mar 4, 2013

The vision of this site is to introduce people to great music. You may have seen me post several videos now from a UK site called “The Line of Best Fit“. They are for me what I hope this site is for you. When I rolled into my desk yesterday morning and saw them posting a video by Charlotte Church (yes, that Charlotte Church), I was obviously taken aback. Then I was devastated by some of the best music I’ve heard this year.

I have a thing for powerful vocalists and so I appreciate what folks like Josh Groban and Church have done. And I desperately hate to see such talent wasted (Christina Aguilera). But at the same time I’m not a fan of classical or classical-inspired pop. And all of those things make this project amazing. For full background, I’ll let you read Best Fit’s article, I’ll just focus on this EP.

TWO is the aptly-titled second of five EPs to be released over the course of the next 12-18 months. ONE is more of a straight-forward indie-rock sound while TWO is more ethereal. As with the previous EP that I reviewed, I’ll just go through this one track by track because it works that way.

Glitterbombed: With the title and the cover image, you might expect some sort of  trance/house sound. Let me allay your fears. This is synth heavy, but but the toms on the chorus keep it grounded while Church’s sweeping vocals carry you away. The song is interspersed with interview in the video below.

Breach of Peace: This track ebbs and flows. It begins really straight-forward, then develops some more elemental sounds. The vocals on the chorus just take it to a whole other level.  Having read a few words about her journey in recent years, I find that the lyrics are probably very personal and that only adds to the quality of the vocal.

Mistress: I don’t know about this one and why it’s here. It doesn’t sound like it belongs and so I can only guess that it means something in a bigger context that’s yet to be revealed/understood.

Nerve: This is the song that Best Fit introduced me to. It has a Fiona Apple-esque sensibility to it. It’s art-alternative to the core. But most importantly, the passion bleeds from every pore in both it’s strongest and most delicate moments.

Last, or Eschaton:  It’s probably a faulty comparison, but for some reason Beth Orton comes to mind (at least songs like “Paris Train” and “Daybreaker.”) The closing minute and a half of the record takes a decided turn with a fusion of dubstep buzzes, sitar, atmospherics, driving drums and guitars. Beautiful.

[Aside: After posting this album on Facebook yesterday, a little conversation arose about some comments that Church made following 9/11/01. I came to her defense by saying, at the very best, she was only 15 and should get a modicum of grace. This led to a discussion of people’s personal life and their music, etc. For a reflection on how personal life and music cross paths, let me direct you here. For a great video about celebrities screwing up, doing stupid things, and finding grace let me direct you here.]