Audio Adrenaline: Sound of the Saints

Release Date: March 4, 2015

Bands change. It’s been hard for me to accept that, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized it’s true. From Dio-era Black Sabbath to Van Hagar, bands not only change their personnel, but also their sound. I was both excited and intrigued when the band reformed a few years back with one of the greatest vocalists ever (Kevin Max) as their frontman. I was much more skeptical this time around as a whole new group of musicians took up the banner of a group with over two decades of history.

If you were to hand me a copy of Sound of the Saints and tell me, “name that band,” there’s no way that I could do it. This does not sound like any of the previous iterations of the group. And though we are aware that bands change, it’s only fair to go into this record eyes and ears open to the fact that you’re going to be getting something else. What you’re getting is a really solid, radio-ready record full of great hooks and fantastic melodies.

The album opener, “Move”, has gotten my 6 year old amped for soccer practice and inspired him to showcase his ninja skills against the mighty foe of our living room couch. No wonder it’s being used by NFL network, MLB network, and WWE. It’s fantastically well-crafted and is one of the band’s favorite songs on the record. The lead single, “Love Was Stronger”, is straight forward if not heavy handed but it does a great job of drawing the listener in and inviting them to sing along. “Miracles” and “World Changers”are also among the top tracks on the record.

The title track, “Sound of the Saints”, is notable as it was co-written by founding lead-singer Mark Stewart. What’s interesting is that this track represent the farthest deviation from the band’s original sound. Its folksy, camp-fire sound is echoed on “Spirit Burn.” “Saved My Soul” sounds like something that would have been well-suited for former vocalist Max.

This band means a lot to me, personally. As I told new lead singer, Adam Agee, the band’s bloom record really introduced me to “Christian Rock” music – and in going back and listening today, that album holds up surprisingly well. That’s the kind of record I want to hear when the name Audio Adrenaline comes to mind. But even the sound of that version of the band went through stages. bloom (in my opinion) was a great example of that trial-and-error finding its perfect spot. They repeated that sound, in large part, on the follow-up Some Kind of Zombie. But after that, their sound leaned a lot more toward the center and away from the edginess they had once offered.

One thing, however, that has continued to bother me, I think is worth mentioning. The original band never shied away from their Christian message, but their songs were rarely “on the nose.” They took more of the teen angst and uncertainty and inserted a Christian worldview into it. This record, however, is nothing if not explicitly evangelical… and that’s fine, I just think that it really shrinks the potential audience – especially folks like Agee and myself who discovered Christian rock music through the band.

Still, this record is perhaps the logical next step of melding mainstream CCM with a rock edge. As I mentioned, this record is well-suited for Christian radio, especially the likes of Air1. In fact, I would say that it is better than the vast majority of what is out there in this category – but it’s still hard for me to call it Audio Adrenaline, and it probably always will be.

P.S. listening back through the band’s catalog and hearing Mark Stewart’s voice get weaker and weaker with each record is so thoroughly heart-breaking and makes his brief appearance on their previous record all the more sweet.

Bethan: Time Gone By

Release Date: Oct. 7, 2014

One of the best surprises last year came in the form of Dallas-based Bethan’s Christmas EP. I was excited to get my hands on their new full-length Time Gone By, to hear their luxuries sounds on original material. I wasn’t disappointed.

The record opens with “Low Expectations”, a track that resonated so deeply as a personal life motto: “The secret to happiness is low expectations.” The lilting pace of the melody is brilliantly off-set by singer Jessi Hall’s syncopated delivery. The low-fi guitar tones are counter-balanced by sweeping strings. While it’s hard to compare Bethan to anyone else out there, the band sites influences as varied as Tom Waits and Gershwin. I, for one, hear shades of modern Charlotte Church fused with the smokiness of jazz songstress Diana Krall.

I’m often nervous about artists who deviate too much in their sound from track to track. While the variance between these songs is not jarring, there is an interesting feeling that the listener is being taken on a journey as much through style as through melody or lyric. There are hints of jazz and even cabaret, but a thoroughly modern thread weaves the tracks together. Hall’s voice has an old-soul quality about it that is strong when it needs to be (“Beside Me”) and breezy when the song demands it (“Honeymoon”).

As a whole, this is a great record – though I would say it is “moody” and requires a bit more attention than just being something that you put on in the car during your commute. The first half is fantastic, but with a bar set so high, the second half doesn’t maintain the same momentum. Check out a live performance below, then go buy it.

Interview :: Pentatonix

With their new record (PTX Vol. 2) now available, Mitch Grassi (seated with silver tie) of Pentatonix was kind enough to take a few minutes to let me know what’s been going on with the group since their rise to fame on NBC’s The Sing Off.


Ryan: It’s been a while since you won Season Three of The Sing Off. I’m sure that life has changed a little bit since then. What are some of the biggest changes and most exciting moments between then and now?

Mitch: I think the most exciting part is just seeing so much of the world. I’ve always wanted to travel, I love that part of my job is traveling around the country and sometimes performing internationally! We’ve also met some pretty amazing people along the way, including our wonderful & supportive fans.

Ryan: Your group is very diverse. How does that diversity influence the music that you make and the fans that you are able to reach?

Mitch: Well first and most obvious, we are very ethnically different. We come from a slew of different backgrounds, and I think that’s one reason why we appeal to so many different types of people. We also have wildly different music tastes, which has helped shape our sound, and has allowed us to experiment with a number of different genres.

Ryan: PTX Vol. 2 is out now and it seems like you’ve brought more originals than ever before. How does it feel to be able to introduce the world to your own music?

Mitch: It’s an amazing feeling, really. But it’s also incredibly vulnerable! I would say we are all pretty new to writing original music, so it’s definitely been pretty scary. However, we’ve grown so much as musicians and writers, so I think our music has progressed on its own. We truly hope our audience enjoys the original material, because they’ve been so fun to work on!

Ryan: When it comes to creating such intricate arrangements, what does that process look like? Do you chart everything out? Do you just work through it vocally until it feels right? Does one person take the lead in arranging?

Mitch: We typically arrange in a sort of “jam session” fashion. Avi will start with the chord progression for the musical foundation of the song, and whoever sings the solo will sing the melody over that. Then we just experiment with background parts to complement the soloist. Kevin usually comes up with his insane beats on his own; he’s very musically intuitive.

Ryan: Obviously your appearances on national television have garnered you a lot of fans, but you’ve been able to build on that and keep those fans close using technology, specifically YouTube. What can you say about the intentionality of using that medium to keep new content coming and staying connected to your fans?

Mitch: The social media aspect of our career has been essential to our success. Our fans truly feel like they can connect with us musically and personally. We really think it’s important that our fan base stays current with us; we love having them on this journey with us.

Pentatonix: PTX Vol. 2

Release Date: November 5, 2013

Like many of their fans, I fell in love with Pentatonix from the first time I saw them on season 3 of NBC’s The Sing Off (which they won). I’ve always been a fan of great vocal groups and had really had my ears opened to the possibilities of a capella music from the previous season of the show. From the outset, though, Pentatonix stood apart from the rest. Other groups were typically made up of as few as 7 or as many as 20+ singers – Pentatonix 5 members suggested a far more “minimalist” approach. The sound that they created, however, was bigger than most of their peers. Their arrangements were innovative, complicated, and unexpected. Simply put, they blew me away.

It’s been a couple of years since the show and in that time they’ve released an EP (PTX vol. 1) and a Christmas EP (PTXmas) and have toured extensively. While they may not be in rotation on the radio, they’ve garnered a strong following online with their videos regularly receiving multi-million views on YouTube. In fact, this past weekend their collaboration with another YouTube sensation, Mindy Stirling earned the “Response of the Year” award at the inaugural YouTube Music Awards. Their cover of “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons has received more than 41 million views.

PTX vol. 2 starts out – in my opinion – on a bad foot with its weakest track, a cover of Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us.” While the group has a phenomenal sound, they feel a little too sugary sweet to deliver with the same heart of the original. While I’m not the biggest fan of Mac’s delivery, his white-boy-from-Seattle style carries on a little bit better than the white kids from Texas rapping. But good news: that’s the only bad track on the record.

When a group is predominantly known for cover songs, their originals can seem a bit inferior – not the case, here. Starting with track 2, “Natural Disaster”, the band shows that they can stand on their own two feet. Lead vocalist Scott Hoying punches through with the fervor lacked on the first track. Backing vocals taking on a gospel choir-like tone. The breakdown highlights the amazing bass of Avi Kaplan and makes you wish you had a massive subwoofer on your stereo.

Far and away the best track on the record is another original, “Run to You”. Perhaps because it’s a palette cleanser, perhaps because it is so completely different than anything I’ve ever heard from them, I absolutely love this track. No beats, no atmospherics, just singing voices from all five members. I’ve never had any doubt about any of these performers, but for anyone who might think that it’s just a lot of noises and a schtick, this track should wipe away all questions.

They follow up “Run to You” with its polar opposite, a medley of Daft Punk. I’ve never been a fan of Daft Punk, but enough of it is familiar to me that I can enjoy it. The performance itself is incredible. Each member has an opportunity to shine without feeling as though they are pulled away from the rest of the group. It is quintessential PTX.

On the whole, this is a fantastic record – even if it is a little short (3 tracks are 3:01 or less). I would have loved to hear “Royals” on here, which they released to iTunes as a single. In my opinion, that would have been a perfect pre-order bonus track or something. Mitch Grassi kills it on that track. I posted the video a few days ago, check it out below. Also, come back tomorrow for a brief Q&A that I got to do with Mitch.

Essential Playlist :: Hanson

I’ve stated before that I avoid anything by Hanson prior to their 2000 release This Time Around. That includes the ubiquitous, over-played, much-maligned “MMMbop.” So, for those of you whose ears fear encountering that track, fear not! This band has put out 5 amazing albums (and a live, best of) since then. This playlist showcases their variety of styles over the last 13 years with the heaviest emphasis on my two favorites: the aforementioned, This Time Around and the previously-reviewed The Walk.

Hanson: All Grown Up

under 1. Strong Enough To Break, Underneath – The band has always been good at saying how they are feeling. Coming off of a very tough several years and deciding to go the independent route, this song is a great statement from a band that’s willing to put every last bit of heart into their music.

walk 2. Great Divide, The Walk – Another great album-opener.  While the driving guitar chords are obvious, I think that the piano action here is the best part.

shout it out 3. Make It Out AliveShout it Out – This track reminds me a lot of the band Chicago with the chord structures, piano style, and horns. The difference is a more aggressive vocal approach than Peter Cetera would have attempted.

under 4. Lost Without Each Other, Underneath – I like the vocal approach on Underneath. It often seems a little rushed and a bit mushy, which I would normally would hate, but Taylor really excels at using to communicate emotion.

walk 5. Georgia, The Walk – The band used the opening piano riff in a series of video podcasts leading up to the release of this record, so there was already a familiarity when the album came out. I know that I use the vague term, “immediacy”, a lot – but this is another great example of just that.

anthem 6. Juliet, Anthem – This is easily my favorite song on the new record. It’s playful and powerful. I love Zac’s voice here and on most everything he does.

live 7. Hand In Hand, Live and Electric (originally, This Time Around) – This song was my first introduction to Isaac’s vocals. I love how he gets so passionate – which is why I opted for the live version in particular.

this time 8. A Song To Sing, This Time Around – I love “downer” songs. I love piano-based pop. I love vocal harmonies. So, for me, this is homerun. It’s a welcomed palette-cleanser at the end of great album (like a “cool down” after a workout).

shout it out 9. Use Me Up, Shout it Out – All the reasons listed immediately above are what make this song succeed. Couple that with Zac’s vocal performance and you’ve got another winner. To me, the horns here are a bit reminiscent of Matchbox 20’s Mad Season record.

this time 10. Save Me, This Time Around – This is one of the very first Hanson songs to really jump out at me. The harmonies are so locked in and the delivery is achingly desperate.

anthem 11. You Can’t Stop Us, Anthem – Like “Strong Enough to Break”, this is another great “statement” song. As I mentioned in my review of the album, I love the chorused vocals on the chorus.

under12. Penny & Me, Underneath – This song is special to me because my wife knew it before we even met.

walk 13. Watch Over Me, The Walk – Another Issac-fronted rock track. As on “Hand in Hand”, he showcases the ability to bring an impassioned and aggressive vocal approach.

live 14. This Time Around, Live and Electric (originally, This Time Around) – I love this version of the song for the way that it builds, then strips out the instruments for the first chorus. Additionally, I love the traded verse vocals. Finally, it showcases more widely spaced harmonies that create a more expansive range. While tight harmonies are beautiful, I love the range here, especially live.

walk 15. Go, The Walk – I’ve said before that this is my favorite song in the entire catalog. Zac shines on the lead vocal. The piano-propelled melody is excellent. There’s no reason not to declare it a “perfect song.”

Hanson: Anthem

Release Date: June 18, 2013

When they began their career some 20+ years ago, the Hanson brothers epitomized the term “pop”. For at least on summer they ruled the airwaves with their catchy, upbeat, overnight sensation “MMMbop“. While their following albums were heard by significantly fewer people, the brothers continued to hone their skills within the confines of the pop genre. On their 2007 album, The Walk, the brothers turned their amps up a notch or two and delivered a solid rock record that should have excited anyone that heard it. They followed this effort with something of a surprise move on 2010’s neo-soul-pop Shout it Out. On their latest effort, Anthem, the boys kick off their 3rd decade in the business with a record that offers a taste of all these sounds – a snapshot of where they’ve been and where they are going.

When I first saw the video for the lead single “Get the Girl Back“, I was taken a bit aback by it’s return to the Shout it Out sound. Given the critical praise their previous record received, this was probably a safe choice for the band. For my part, any instance in which the band strays from their piano-based instrumentation is cause for concern. I’m not a fan of horns, which are all over this track, so my first impression of the record lowered my expectations to some degree.

The album opens with “Fired Up“, built on aggressive guitars and driving (but less-than-crisp) drums. While the brothers are always expected to have great harmonies, the lock up especially well here. “I’ve Got Soul” is another horn-heavy, cowbell-filled Shout it Out-er. It does show a bit of divergence with a bit of Latin/Cubano essence just below the surface.

For me, the album really starts to pick up with Underneath-era style on the Zac-led “Juliet“. I’ve said before that my favorite tracks tend to feature Zac, and here he shines in a whole new way with a stutter-step vocal that could have easily gone wrong. The simple, bouncy piano part propels the song forward and at no point does it try to over-stretch its’ sweet spot. A killer bridge brings the whole piece together.

Isaac takes the band into Jason Mraz/adult contemporary territory on “For Your Love“. The stripped down instrumentation, extensive harmonies, and relatable lyrics make this track a near-masterpiece. Songs like this coming from a stable songwriters with strong family values only deepen the band’s impact.

There’s an intriguing 80’s essence to several songs in the collection including “You Can’t Stop Us Now” and “Tragic Symphony“. The former brings up images of 80’s greats such as Joan Jett and Michael Jackson. Isaac does a great job of leading the way vocally, but the track is really turned on its head (in a good way) by the chorused harmonies. On the latter, there’s an almost frantic feeling built on a collision of strings, bass, drums, tamborine and rushed, tightly-harmonized vocals.

All in all, the album succeeds, but fails to reach the heights that I would hope for. The convergence of so many different stylistic influences (while meshed together in extraordinary ways) can’t out pace any one genre choice standing on it’s own.

Here the band succeeds best when playing it close to the chest, keeping the production to a minimum, and letting the vocals rule the finished product. As mentioned before, when they step away from the piano, things seem to unravel a bit. Additionally, attempts to sound lyrically tough (“Fired Up”, “Can’t Stop Us”) come across as a little unbelievable (the same mistake we’ve seen Joseph Gordon-Levitt making of late).

While I may not spin the album cover-to-cover very often, there are definitely several songs here that will make it into long-term rotation.

Hanson: The Walk

Release Date: July 24, 2007

In anticipation of next week’s release of Anthem, I wanted to go back and re-visit my favorite Hanson album, The Walk. Following a successful (if slightly mellow) outing on 2004’s Underneath, the band removed all the speed bumps to create a timeless record, securing the place amongst the greatest rock bands on the business today. It’s a shame that too few people ever actually heard it.

The album opens with the DD Dliwayo School Choir chanting “Ngi Ne Themba (I Have Hope)” leading into the first single, “Great Divide” which features the choir as well. The inclusion of the choir was intended to help raise awareness of the band’s charity work. Sales from the “Great Divide” single went to the Perinatal HIV Research Unit in Soweto, South Africa. Not that this was a one-time only event, you can still partner with the band to support their giving on the Take the Walk website.

Middle brother Taylor brings his power vocals and personal fervor strongest on “Georgia” which cleverly wordplays the Ray Charles classic. While the entire record is very radio-friendly, this may be the most consumable track for the casual listener. The children’s choir returns alongside trio vocals on the Taylor-led deep cut “Blue Sky“.

This album seems to have a wealth of lead vocals by youngest brother/drummer Zac – and shows him to be (arguable) the best vocalist of the bunch. His “Running Man” is one of the few low points on the album and provides a crystal ball glance into the future of the band’s direction. This mis-step is easily forgivable, though, when followed by the breakthrough performance of “Go“. This song is easily my favorite of anything that they’ve done and may be an all-time favorite of any artist in my collection.

Eldest, Isaac, has a few starring moments on the record as well. Another favorite throughout the band’s entire catalog occurs with him at the helm. “Watch Over Me” succeeds due to his steady, lower range that his siblings lack. He is also able to provide a tempered growl in the tag.

With 17 tracks on the extended edition (only $9.49 from AmazonMP3) the value proposition alone makes this a great record. Recently, my friend Dan and I were discussing whether or not a band can “peak.” I said, you just never know when a band is going to come back with a great record unexpectedly (and I cited Green Day‘s American Idiot) as an example. In my mind, this album is the high point of their collection, but I certainly hope to see them surpass it in the future.

Artist of the Month :: Hanson

I first encountered Hanson the same way many others did: during the summer of 1997 through the outrageously overplayed “MMMBop“. And, like many, I determined that this was enough for me to never want to  have anything to do with the band. Then, years later, in the most unexpected and unplanned way, I became a fan.

I had returned to my dorm room after a day of classes and flipped on the television which still happened to be tuned to MTV. On the opposite side of the room with my back turned to the tv, I was really digging the song that I was hearing so I turned around to learn more. After a few seconds I said to myself, “hey, that looks like Hanson”. And so I watched all the way through to the credits to find that the song was in fact by Hanson, the title track to their 2000 record, This Time Around.

Fast forward another 3 years, I’m living in Portland, OR and spending most of my free time at the library. Digging through their CD collection, I come across This Time Around, and remembering back to that random listen 3 years prior, I decided to give it a try. (It should be noted that this is the same library collection that made me a fan of Ben Folds, John Mayer, Simon and Garfunkel, and Elton John.) I was hooked. This Time Around is a solid record with a string of memorable tracks including the title track, “Save Me”, “Hand in Hand”, and “Song to Sing”. The band’s voices had passed puberty and the tone was rich. The piano-anchored compositions were immediately relatable without seeming contrived. (Just FYI, I don’t listen to anything prior to this record.)


Obviously, that record could never have lived up to the expectations set by their breakthrough single. As such, they spent a lengthy amount of time separating from their label and recording their follow-up independent release Underneath (2004) as detailed in the documentary Strong Enough to Break. This collection, again, was an all-around great record with plenty of quality songs that no one ever heard including “Penny and Me”, “Underneath”, and “Lost Without Each Other”.

In my opinion, the band reached its biggest musical breakthrough on 2007’s The Walk. On this record, each singer offers strong lead vocal efforts. The collection as a whole is perhaps the strongest of any release in the catalog. And the songs would have been perfect for Adult Contemporary or Top 40 radio if anyone would have played them. The inclusion of an African children’s choir on “Great Divide” is a nice touch highlighting the band’s charity work. Eldest brother Isaac shines on “Watch Over Me”. Perhaps my favorite song from the band is the Zac-fronted “Go” which is both fragile and firm in the greatest of ways.

Upon my early listening, I was not as enamored with Shout it Out (2010) as I had been with previous releases. The Walk had been so solidly pop-rock that the soul-bluesy Shout it Out was a bit of a surprise. The production on the record is a bit less robust than on earlier releases which I’m usually ok with, but here it just seems sterile. I’m usually not a fan of horns and that holds true here as well. While I’m glad that the single “Thinkin’ ’bout Somethin'” garnered more mainstream attention than anything else they had done in a long time, I felt that it sorely missed the greatness of the prior three records. Again, the Zac-led “Use Me Up” is great in the same manner as “Go”.


Now in their 20th year as a band, the brothers are set to release Anthemlater this month. The lead single, “Get the Girl Back” seems to stay in the same sound range of Shout it Out which is a little disappointing. However, as long as they don’t completely abandon the piano in favor of the Rhodes keyboard or other such keyed instrument, all should be fine.

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.]