Random Blatherings

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Josh Groban Awake Tour Review

I decided on a whim to catch Josh's Awake tour here in Boston last night. I didn't have a ticket and bought one at the box office an hour before the show. It's kind of fun to go to a show without any idea of what the set list or banter or opening act will be.

Preshow: The program cost $20, which is more than I've paid for any other concert program I've bought, but it's also the nicest one. It's made out of very high quality paper with fold outs and a blend of matte and shiny photographic finish. I thought it was interesting that Josh has his own merchandising line "Josh Merchandising," so maybe he can have some say over quality control. His opening act Angelique Kidjo was very impressive vocally and charismatically and girl could stomp around and dance too. I looked it up and she's 46. Obviously quite a seasoned performer, even though I couldn't understand the languages in the African-themed songs. The percussion instrumental backing her up was very cool. Opening act set was about 30 minutes then 35 minute break until Josh Groban took the stage at 9:05.

The set up: Josh has a regular six-piece band and also invited a cellist and a violinist as special guests who part of the touring band. Behind the band is an ensemble of 16 or so local orchestra members. The orchestral stage was pretty fancy, sort of clamshell design with an oval screen behind the two halves, while the main stage had staircases with a small balcony on both sides and a little round jut into the audience front center stage instead of a full blown catwalk which also held a teleprompter (to help him with lyrics on the foreign language songs?). There was a lift center stage that Josh rose out of at the beginning of the show to sing "Don't Give Up" and subsequently also rose to reveal a piano when he accompanied himself on several songs. The requisite multiple spotlights and smoke machine were also present and made for a fairly impressive stage production. Mostly the background movie images being played on the ovalscreen were "new agey" sun rise, woods, candles, except for the weird robot during "Machine."

Set list: Josh performed all the songs and the bonus tracks on the special edition Awake CD. The only English song (since I can't ID the foreign language ones) from his previous albums he did on the set was "Remember when it Rained" and of course "You Raise Me Up" was the final encore. He featured the cellist on stage during his rendition of the love theme from Romeo and Juliet and that was pretty awesome. Guitarist Tariq Akoni got a lot of nice solo time both on the Spanish and electric guitars. The violinist (who performed barefoot in an evening gown) had a solo on "Kashmir" while Josh made his way back to the back of the venue and serenaded fans with "In Her Eyes" (the "I'm not a hero, I'm not an angel, I'm just a man" song that's one of my favorites). He shook hands and made his way back onto the stage. He also sat down on the front of the stage and invited fans to come near while he signed autographs and introduced a Broadway song that he proceeded to sing. He also did a duet with Angelique which will be on her next CD, a song called "Pearls," originally sung by Sade. I'm not sure if their voices blended that well (both very loud, plus very loud band) but they did play off each other very sincerely. Instrumental-wise, he played the piano on two or three songs, and the vocoder during "Lullaby" to simulate the acapella singing of the Ladysmith Black Mambazo (the audience was audibly impressed), and during his encore, he played the drums pretty fiercely. Vocally he was very, well, loud. And had to be to sing over the band, which was borderline bandzilla in volume. I don't think some of his high, held notes got as much appreciation from the crowd as they could have because he was competing to be heard over the band. I don't think he's the most nuanced singer I've ever heard, but he may be the most powerful and can definitely hit all his notes, though his falsetto can sound a little strained at times. Maybe nuance will come with time, or a less loud instrumental backing. The acapella "Lullaby" previously mentioned was probably the most impressive vocal showcase because there was nothing obscuring his voice there. He seems to be able to sell "Machine" better live than he did on the album, where his phrasing is a little stilted.

Audience chatter: Groban was quite charming and funny. He hugged a girl who held up a sign saying "Hug me I'm Grobish" and joked "Am I Grobish now too? Do I have Grobanitis?" When he invited the audience to come close (and people came up soliciting autographs), he was like great, why don't you all come up, there's only 14,000 people. He also imitated Mr. Rogers and sang a little big of "it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood" and joked that the stage lift was "magic" when it brought out the piano. After a standing ovation mid-set, he commented Boston had the best crowd (I guess usually Groban concerts don't generally give standing ovations until the end of the show), and there were a lot of screams from the audience. "I love you Josh" was responded to with "I love you more, no really" and when a guy yelled out something indecipherable, he was mock-astonished, "there are guys here?" and commanded them to "Show yourselves!" then proceeded in a tough guy voice to say "Uh, so what's up guys?" Heh. He also pandered to the men in the audience a bit by saying how grateful he was to have all these love songs written for him so he could just use those when trying to impress girls since he's so awkward with words (pretends to stutter), "You know what it's like, guys. So honey, this is how I feel" (pretends to turn on music). He also joked about the title of "So she dances" as something that would be said by a guy with a twirly mustache. He did a pretty good job of moving from side to side on the ginormous stage. There was also a nice bit where they played his visit to South Africa and he discussed how it inspired him as a person and as a musician.

Overall it was an enjoyable show. A nice blend of powerful singing backed up by highly impressive instrumentalists with cute audience interaction that lasted approximately 110 minutes. As usual I didn't take any photos so to spice up this entry I'll post some fun a/v from Youtube of one of my favorite songs from Josh's last tour, his new-age cover of Linkin Park's "My December":

Labels: , ,

Friday, October 13, 2006

Concert Review--Nick Lachey: What's Left Of Me Tour

Last Saturday I had a chance to see Nick Lachey's What's Left of Me Tour when it came to the Boston Orpheum. I'm not a particular fan of Lachey, though I like the radio single, "What's Left of Me" and its video, and admit to having rented season one of Newlyweds just to see what the fuss is about, but I was browsing ticketmaster the day of the show and second row seats (right center) came up and who am I to turn down second row seats? I've never seen a show from the second row and I like Nick okay, so why not? I don't have pictures, so words will have to suffice.

The opening acts were Dirtie Blonde and Joanna. I have Joanna's record because I was impressed by some of her live performances I saw on YouTube, but I have to say I found Dirtie Blonde far more impressive on the concert stage, the lead singer has excellent stage presence and gritty bluesy rock voice, and they were the only act all night long that had a good instrumental mix that didn't overwhelm the vocals. I had a huge problem with Joanna's band, who were way too loud. I kind of wish I did take a picture of her outfit though, which I can only vaguely describe as a dress that looks like what I imagine a nun's pajama top would look like. Her voice is excellent but her mannerisms seem affected--she was a child star playing the role of Annie in a nationwide touring musical, I believe, and has also spent five years recording her debut album.

Before the show started, there is a kind of cheesy car multimedia system ad starring Lachey driving around and telling the sound system what to play, intercut with the "What's Left of Me" video. Nick came on wearing a suitjacket, and he obviously has a lot of experience singing in front of the crowd (90% female ages 18-35 by my estimate, full house of 3000) and worked the audience really well, playing to the Bostonites by announcing the Yankees' loss to Detroit in the playoffs. The singing was a little hard to hear sometimes because the band was overwhelming, though he seemed to be pretty on the melody of the songs on his current album, and he performed almost all the What's Left Of Me album songs except one or two. He has a lot of fun with the band rocking out on the percussion and bass and took off the suit jacket in favor of the T-shirt underneath, commenting on the hot temperature in the theater, and also encouraging the crowd to take off layers. The first half of the show was almost all WLOM album tracks, but he also sung a song ("Fall in Love Again") from his previous solo album Soul-O and joked with the crowd that it was a limited edition collector's item since the album hadn't sold very well and assured the crowd that he would fall in love again--"just not tonight." First half closed with current radio single "I Can't Hate You Anymore" and Nick went off stage to change.

After Nick changed, the second half of the show started with an acoustic set of Nick singing parts of his 98 Degrees hits, slightly changed up, followed by a Southern rock song. He then did a crowd participation piece where he took off the T-shirt to reveal a black tank top and announced he would go into the crowd to find someone to inspire him to sing the next song, "Slave," which is apparently a song he wrote that didn't make the album. The song is more sultry, R&B and very different in flavor from the pop/rock ballads on WLOM, and cameras followed Nick into the crowd as he held the hand and embraced an audience member (woman in her twenties who seemed pretty composed and played along with the teasing nature of the song by touching his muscles) throughout the song. Lachey then returned to the stage to sing a Led Zepplin cover and introduce the band before saying goodnight.

The lights remained dimmed for the canned encore, the crowd was pretty quiet and were or less waiting for Nick to come out again although there were some scattered "We Want Nick" choruses. He entered with just the piano on "Resolution" and then gradually the other band members came in and joined in. The closer, of course, was the massive radio hit "What's Left of Me," which was changed up slightly to encourage crowd singalong.

All in all it was a fun show, I had a good time dressing up and dancing to the songs, and it's pretty cool to see a show with the main attraction three feet away from me at times and looking straight in my direction.

And since I like embedding videos in every blog entry, here's one I found on Youtube of Nick's Oxygen concert, performing "Everywhere But Here":

Tags: , ,

Sunday, October 01, 2006

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways: ATDW Album Review

When Clay Aiken started the journey towards the follow up to 2003's Measure of Man, one of my concerns was that he would make an album that was essentially MOAM, part II, based on the songs he had previewed on the 2005 Jukebox Tour. To put it in analogy form, "Back for More":"Invisible"::"Tears Run Dry":"Run to Me"::"Just You":"No More Sad Song." Now, I actually like those new songs more than the songs off of MOAM, but they didn't represent much of an artistic progression to me. Nevertheless, when RCA records sent wind to the press that the new album would be feature "love songs" and "covers of big songs," I was even more concerned because rather than standing still, this seemed to be a step back towards American Idol. Upon closely listening to the songs closely, however, it's clear that Clay cut and polished a gem of an album with A Thousand Different Ways.

Executive producer Jaymes Foster had promised Clay fans that his voice would sound as fans have never previously heard, a statement met with much skepticism at the time, but which has indeed come to pass. Aiken's voice is far more restrained, employing a airy, lighter approach to several songs that one would typically expect him to belt in full chest voice, most notably "Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word" and "Everything I Do (I Do It For You)." These two particular songs also feature unusually pretty choices of accompaniment, with "Sorry" featuring acoustic Spanish guitar and "Everything I Do" arranged in a Celtic style using pan flutes and strings.

Aiken's vocals also make an artistic leap from his previous recordings on the nuanced, understated tracks of "Here You Come Again" and "Everything I Have." "Here" is perhaps the only song on A Thousand Different Ways where Clay has a chance to show the full resonance of his voice, hitting several remarkable low notes. In "Everything I Have," the vocal is contemplative and emotionally laid-bare, in conjunction with its delicate accompaniment, the song is a truly sincere promise of love.

The two biggest artistic achievements on this album are the contemporary pop ballad, "Lonely No More" (not to be confused with the Rob Thomas drum machine-fueled pop single) and a radical rearrangement of Mister Mister's "Broken Wings." The former represents Clay's first official writing credit, while the latter speaks to his imagination to change up a straight up rock ballad to an ethereal, new age effort including spoken word vocals and Celtic drums. "Clay Aiken" is listed as fourth co-writer on "Lonely More" and based on what's known of Aiken's writing style, it seems he likely had a hand in crafting the quiet, evocative lyrics of the verses, while the chorus and music, which are pretty standard pop fare, had been previously written. The layering of vocals on both "Broken Wings" (female Evanescence-type background singer) and "Lonely No More" (Clay singing changeups on top of himself singing the chorus) are aesthetically pleasing, with the majority of the vocals performed in Clay's strongest and most effective range of tones and coloring.

"Lonely No More"
Written by Andreas Carlsson, Samuel Waermo, Mimmi Waermo, and Clay Aiken
Lyrics copied from Quiet1ne's lists and lyrics

Another dream, another day
I've seen too many fade away
So if you wonder how to make it right
Give me everything, everything tonight

'cause I don't want to be lonely no more
I don't want to feel empty no more
Only you could unbreak this heartache I've carried around
Don't want to be lonely no more, no more

Take me in, take me home
I can't stand to be alone
Help me paint the picture of my life
Don't you disappear and leave me here tonight

'cause I don't want to be lonely no more
I don't want to feel empty no more
Only you could unbreak this heartache I've carried around
Don't want to be lonely no more, no more

Can't make no sense of life
No matter how I've tried
'cause something's missing in my heart

I don't want to be lonely no more
I don't want to feel empty no more
Only you could unbreak this heartache I've carried around
Don't want to be lonely no more, no more

I don't want to be lonely no more
I don't want to feel empty no more
Only you could unbreak this heartache I've carried around
Don't want to be lonely no more, no more
No more

"Because You Loved Me" and "Right Here Waiting" are noticeably more percussive in sound and more catchy than their originals, but the emotional quality, particularly compared to Marx's yearning in "Right Here Waiting" doesn't quite translate in the new versions. Two new songs, "A Thousand Days" (previewed on the Jukebox Tour and by far my least favorite of the JBT songs due to the plodding music), and "These Open Arms" (even more insipid) play mostly to Clay's stereotypical American Idol bombast. The remainder of the album sticks closer to original arrangements of cover songs, which is particularly evident in "Without You" and "When I See You Smile," and to a lesser extent, "I Want to Know What Love Is" (changed up because it's a duet), and "Everytime You Go Away" (altered mostly by Clay's lighter vocal touch). They all sound fine because it's Clay's remarkable voice, but not especially innovative compared to some other tracks.

Curiously, while RCA Records has been hyping the songs featuring more traditional arrangements and emphasizing the big voice, it's Aiken's own, less mainstream approach on the other songs that are most imaginative in illuminating the uniqueness of his voice and phrasing previously unheard on recordings. These less stereotypic songs are where Clay shows considerable artistic growth via his vocal and instrumental choices, despite the initially limiting context of "love song covers." Nevertheless Clay clearly excels at live performances of the showboat songs chosen by the label as potential singles, "Without You" and "A Thousand Days."

Here's Clay on The View performing "Without You:"

I'd be remiss to not address the two bonus tracks available with certain retail versions of A Thousand Different Ways, "If You Don't Know Me By Now" (from Kmart) and "Lover All Alone" (from iTunes) because they represent different facets of Clay's voice and artistry. "If" sticks fairly closely to the Simply Red arrangement and works with the album thematically as a declarative song about the relationship between "you" and "me," but sonically it's quite a departure from the sweeter vocals on A Thousand Different Ways and more in line with Aiken's bluesy, soulful wailing concert performances. "Lover" is quite another animal altogether, it fits sonically with the album but not thematically because the song is reflective rather than declarative. More importantly, "Lover All Alone" represents the first recording primarily written by Clay Aiken, with music by Warner Music mogul David Foster.

"Lover All Alone"
Written by Clay Aiken, David Foster, and Eman
Lyrics copied from Quiet1ne's lists and lyrics

Maybe I’ve convinced myself
I've really been in love
And I’ve been wrong all along
For all I know the feeling
And the picture that I’ve tried
So hard to find isn't mine

Could be its all just a waiting game
Wanna share my everything

And on my own
It’s hard to tell my heart it will be alright
This love it holds will one day find a home
As hard as love can be
It’s harder still it seems
To be a lover all alone without love

Picking up the pieces makes me wonder if
I only build it all to watch it fall
The faster it can go away it means the less of me
Is gone to stay and I’m ok

But lonesome tomorrow comes anyway
I’m alone for another day,
Another day

And on my own
It’s hard to tell my heart it will be alright
That this love it holds will one day find a home
As hard as love can be
It’s harder still it seems
To be a lover all alone without love

And on my own
It’s hard to tell my heart it will be alright
That this love it holds will one day find a home
As hard as love can be
It’s harder still it seems
To be a lover all alone without love
A lover all alone without love

Maybe I’ve convinced myself
I’ve really been in love
But I’ve been wrong all along

To borrow 43dudleyvillas's words, Clay's writing style appears to "impressionistic," "spare" and "intimate" at the same time. I liken his writing to just dabbing a dot on the surface of water and then watching the ripples. His words are subtle yet emotionally evocative, a startling contrast to most of the "singer/songwriter" pop stars who tend to rely on writing high school level diary entries made over by professional songwriters to have a hook or the "sun, stars, moon" type cliches that many professional songwriters become ensnared in because of easy rhymes. The vocal performance of this song is another revelation altogether. Aiken has been criticized in some circles for being too technically perfect a singer (a crime if there ever was one in this age of digital enhancement), who doesn't convey the proper emotion because his voice is too good, and in this song he shows that he can "get all choked up inside" (tm "The Way") and really bring a deeply emotional tinge to his singing. He just reaches for a few notes to add a catch to his voice, coloring yet not sacrificing the overall quality of the vocal. There are also some stunning moments where he utilizes his vocal to harmonize with the instruments.

On the whole, A Thousand Different Ways (minus bonus tracks) is a very tightly knit project both in theme (declarative love songs) and sound (pop ballads). Clay navigates the various dimensions of his voice within these confines adeptly, but he shines most in the songs that he's truly taken as his own, whether through melodic alterations, changes in vocal style, writing, or re-arranging. Occasionally the sound mix has the instrumentals overwhelming the vocal, which can be a bit annoying, but the primary sound of Clay Aiken remains in tact, unlike the clean, scrubbed up Measure of a Man album where production frequently overwhelmed the voice. Clay's done well within the structure he's been given by Clive Davis, but it's clearly only a slice of his true capabilities. ATDW is lacking particularly in songs highlighting Clay's resonant lower range, other than in a few spare moments, and in this aspect suffers in comparison to 2004's Merry Christmas With Love, which prominently featured Clay's deep voice. Still missing from any of Clay's recordings is the growly, gritty voice that he showcases in concert and some faster tempo songs sung in his lower range that he executed brilliantly in the 50s set of his Jukebox Tour. Maybe next time.

The ways in which Clay has transformed some of these classics and the lyrics he's brought to the table as a songwriter show that he has excellent musical instincts about how to make songs work for him. I'm looking forward to see where he goes next, and in the meantime, I've already listened to A Thousand Different Ways more than Measure of a Man and Merry Christmas with Love combined. It's possibly the most listenable album I've ever owned, the perfect type of music for listening to on headphones with your eyes closed and no distractions while letting the beauty of the voice and complementary instrumentals sink in; a gem in which you can discover a new subtle brilliance everytime you listen.

Tags: , , A Thousand Different Ways

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Transcript from Beyond the Sea, the Bobby Darin biopic starring Kevin Spacey:

Voice Over: I was a teen idol for a minute and a half but momma's plan was to be bigger than Sinatra. I wanted to do the great standards but my producer thought I was nuts to turn my back on rock and roll.

Manager: Bobby, Teenagers aren't going to buy an album of you singing standards!

Bobby Darin: Oh now Ahmet, you're talking out of your ass again. How do you know what teenagers are going to buy, what do you got? A crystal ball up there?

Manager: I've been in this business long enough to know that you don't change your image when you're hot like this.

Darin: Well then you're right. I don't want teenagers to be my only audience so that's perfect!

Manager: Why can't you be satisfied? YOu just did Bandstand.

Darin: Bandstand's mostly for kids! Ahmet, I want the Copa. Listen, With rock and roll I got a thousand other guys out there and you goddamn well know it. I gotta prove that I can sing. I want it all. I want the major leagues. I want nightclubs, I want vegas, movies, Tv. This album will make it all happen fast, faster than you can imagine.

The real Bobby Darin, singing his hit, "Mack the Knife:"

Clay Aiken's performance of "Mack the Knife" on American Idol 2:

It's been a few decades since Bobby Darin proved he was a great singer and master entertainer with his re-interpretation of "Mack the Knife," perhaps it's time for Clay Aiken to do the same with classics of his own.

Tags: , Bobby Darin, Beyond the Sea, Mack the Knife

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The VOX is a Drug

Official album cover, *swoon*:

As much as I enjoy looking at the pretty, my addiction of the day is to Clay Aiken's voice. I downloaded all 14 of the clips that were available earlier today at Sony Music Store and have been playing them nonstop all day. The clips are now hidden on the site but you can listen to them at Marhaven's Musings. I've never heard his voice so delicate and nuanced, particularly on the new song "Everything I Have," which is absolutely gorgeous.

Here's a quick synopsis of the 30 second snippets from A Thousand Different Ways:
Songs I had never heard before and am absolutely loving:
  • Lonely No More--Very pretty, memorable melody and lovely acoustic guitar work. Future single material.
  • Here You Come Again--gentle and conveys a certain resignation
  • Everything I Have--gorgeous melody and woodwind work. Voice is so nuanced and natural on this.
  • Broken Wings--really cool ethereal arrangement with haunting background singer

    Song I've never heard before and is very good:
  • Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word--mmm breathy, raspy Clay

    Song I've heard before and am shocked that I like:
  • Everything I Do (I Do It For You)--light touch (hardly sounds like Clay in fact), cool flute sound in the background. I was so sick of the original that I thought I'd be happy to never hear the song again, but I like Clay's version a lot.

    Songs I've heard before and are very good
  • Without You--mmmm, lower register Clay
  • Because You Loved Me--I always liked this song and this arrangment is nice
  • I Want to Know What Love Is--cool rock instrumentation

    Songs I've never heard of and are okay
  • These Open Arms--Typical belting song, nothing too special
  • When I See You Smile--ETYGA and WISYM seem so redudant in sound and not especially creative in arrangment

    Songs I've heard before and are okay
  • Everytime You Go Away--ETYGA and WISYM seem so redudant in sound and not especially creative in arrangment
  • Right Here Waiting--I still prefer Richard Marx's more yearning version
  • A Thousand Days--I haven't liked this song since Clay debuted it last summer, but it's probably the most rock of all the songs

    Overall I love the quality of his voice on these clips, they still lean towards the boybandy sound on Measure of a Man but show more of the dynamic range Clay's vocal capabilities and his unique phrasing. Sooo pretty. *Sigh* I can't wait for the album!

    Tags: , song clips, A Thousand Different Ways

  • Sunday, August 13, 2006

    Customers who bought this item also bought...

    So I've been looking at what Amazon.com classifies as music similar to A Thousand Different Ways and am mildly amused at the stuff people who buy ATDW also buy. Of course, due to the relatively large number of internet Clay fans, the total items list is really skewed to all things directly related to Clay Aiken, but looking at just the music section of things that ATDW purchasers also buy yields in addition to stuff related to Clay (including William Joseph here) and American Idol (and related shows) contestants, in order of relevance:

    5. Christina Aguilera--Back to Basics*
    10. Barry Manilow--The Greatest Songs of the Sixties**
    11. Jesse McCartney--Right Here Where You Want Me**
    13. Evanescence--The Open Door
    15. Lionel Richie--Coming Home**
    18. Justin Timberlake--FutureSex/LoveSounds*
    20. Tony Bennett--Duets: An American Classic*
    21. Stacy Orrico--Beautiful Awakening*
    22. Jessica Simpson--A Public Affair*
    23. Janet Jackson--20 Y.O.
    24. Paris Hilton--Paris*
    25. John Mayer--Continuum
    27. Beyonce--B'Day
    28. Nick Lachey--What's Left of Me
    ** indicates ATDW is directly linked on the first page of similar albums on the other artist's album page
    * indicates ATDW is among the relevant searches of "customers also bought" linked from the other artist's album page

    Just in case you were wondering who Clay shares internet album-purchasing fans with. :) A lot are simply top selling new releases from people who probably like to buy a bunch of new CDs at once, but it's still an interesting slice of Clay's fan demographics. *Wonders if any of the ATDW buyers who also bought Tony Bennett bought the Paris Hilton CD as well*

    Tags: , , A Thousand Different Ways

    Saturday, August 12, 2006

    Album Review -- Christina Aguilera: Back to Basics

    Streaming link here: MTV.com --The Leak
    I'm not much of a reviewer so much as an capturer of impressions, so I'll just give some general thoughts here, since I tend to degenerate to listmaking when going track by track.

    Before I get into the album, I will preface with the fact that I am not a huge fan of Aguilera's voice. I think she is a tremendous talent, maybe the most vocally talented of her generation of pop divas, but her quality of voice does not intrinsically appeal to me. Her belting register tends to be more growly, while I tend to prefer clear, bell-like tones. Plus, when Christina gets loud, she gets really loud, and occasionally she tends to get overly ornate with trilling, which is not a characteristic in singers I am particularly enamoured with. I have a video of Christina singing the "Star Spangled Banner" from when she was a tiny girl and I prefer it to any of her renditions since she's become a melismatic pop star who adds all kind of (unnecessary) flourishes. On the other hand, she's created some music I've really liked, songs that are catchy, well-constructed, with a self-empowering message, powerhouse vocals, which overall are just a bit different from the generic claptrap they usually play on the radio. I absolutely loved "Fighter" and "Walk Away" from the Stripped album. So that's the viewpoint I'm coming from.

    Back to Basics Album Review:

    Disc One is primarily R&B with some jazz influence, it’s a fairly consistent body of work, consisting mostly of midtempo songs, but she manages to infuse each track with its own flavor, some more Latin, some more Big Band, and some more gospel, or a mixture of the styles. Disc Two is a bit of a dichotomy, half 40’s styles songs with a modern raunchy twist on the lyrics, and half pure adult contemporary pop. There are some cool sound effects on both discs of record scratching, horns blaring, funky keyboards, song samples, rapping intros, and even muffled vocals (“I Got Trouble”) on songs of similar tempo that keep the double disc from being too repetitive in style. There isn’t a lot of uptempo music, lead single “Ain’t No Other Man” is the fastest on disc one, while “Candy Man” on the second disc is the other notable uptempo track.

    Despite the change in style from Stripped, there are a few nuggets for fans of the hits off Aguilera’s sophomore album: “Here to Stay” is the “Fighter” of this album, same kind of pop sound (now infused with horns here) and “be strong for yourself” message. “Hurt” is the “Beautiful” analog on this disc, the big, poignant Linda Perry power ballad. “Still Dirrty” conveys that the message of the original “Dirrty” still holds, but the song style is quite different, not as fast and not as fun, but with funkier instruments. There are also shoutouts to her earlier hits, “Thank You,” a track dedicated to her fans, samples “Genie in a Bottle,” while “Nasty Naughty Boy” borrows some lyrics from “Lady Marmalade.”

    Christina shows a wide range of vocal styling, her usual powerhouse wailing is on full display in most of the tracks, but she can rein it in as well. “Save Me From Myself” is a dark, acoustic ballad, where Aguilera’s quiet, whispery phrasing and tone actually reminds me a bit of the Icelandic songstress Bjork. In the verses of “Nasty, Naughty Boy,” she evokes the sultriness of Peggy Lee in “Fever.” She also has some sweet, soft harmonies on “Without You.”

    Aguilera’s songwriting is a bit uneven; she ranges from the poignant narration of the breakdown of her mother’s marriage in the lilting ballad, “Oh Mother” to a rather stark, literal description of her own wedding in “The Right Man,” which is brilliantly orchestrated with wedding-march organs. She again tells a compelling personal story in “Understand,” a tale of her finding love and accepting it, but seems just to be dredging up old stereotypes in “Still Dirrty.” The lyrics push a little further than your typical album of love songs—there’s religious influence in her songs “Makes Me Wanna Pray” and “Mercy on Me,” a direction she hasn’t previously gone, and Aguilera and co-writers push the limits of good taste when describing raunchy acts in double entendre in her 40s throwback songs like “Candy Man” and “Nasty Naughty Boy”

    The interludes are a little silly and unnecessary—“Back to Basics” seems to be all about doing shoutouts to musical greats, and just oddly literal, and is it really necessary to dedicate an entire interlude to complain about her falling out with producer Scott Storch (F.U.S.S.)? Also an odd choice is “Enter the Circus” to start disc two, as it does not feature a vocal by Aguilera, and is follow immediately by the redundant “Welcome.” The fan voice mails in “Thank You” are also kind of weird. The music would be just as strong and cohesive minus the interludes, but I’m sure her fans aren’t complaining about the extra music. I’m not sure having a double album was a really great idea, it might have been better to break up the similar tempo R&B songs on the first disc with the poppier sound on the second disc for continuous listening, but I can understand the artistic division.

    Overall I think this is the third pop album of the year that would win a recommendation from me, following Pink’s I’m Not Dead and Nelly Furtado’s Loose. Each album is distinct in style but manages to be both consistent and eclectic in its own genre and is supported by a strong, unique vocalist.

    Because blogs are always more fun with a/v, here's a video of Christina performing "Understand" from B2B:

    Tags: , , Back to Basics