Thursday, December 06, 2007

Right back where we started, falling apart at the seams

Music: Blake Lewis - How Many Words

'80's revival is big now. If you're a pop artist looking for some credibility for your pop, the easy thing to do seems to be to cite the '80's as your inspiration. Rarely, though, is '80's-cribbing done as well as it is on Blake Lewis's electro-influenced debut album. From his earliest performances on Idol to the year's "watercooler" moment, his chopped-up rendition of Bon Jovi's "You Give Love A Bad Name," it was obvious that Blake was one of the most interesting contestants Idol has ever had, and with Audio Day Dream, he's proved he's not just the most interesting American Idol contestant around, he may very well be THE most interesting artist around, certainly the up-and-comer most worthy of your attention.

Lead single "Break Anotha" is a fantastic attention-grabbing piece of music. The biggest-sounding track on the album, the song is screaming out to be danced along with in a completely spastic way--that opening siren is the sort of thing that, in an ideal world, would cause everyone on the floor of a packed club to go crazy, and those falling "ohhh"s during the chorus demand to be sung along with. Unfortunately, it's a little too "out there" for radio to probably pick up on it, which leaves the dilemma of what to release as the follow-up single to really launch Blake's career. And there we run into trouble. Fantastic and commercial as this album is, nothing really screams "smash hit" besides maybe "Break Anotha," which really doesn't even scream that until U.S. radio DJs are willing to try something new. If one song--besides "Break Anotha," because there's really no true follow-up to that song on the album--manages to take off, many should be able to as well, because all are of similar quality and have kind of a similar vibe, but can anything capture the radio presenters' and public's attention?

If the album sinks with little trace, though, one of the year's biggest pop crimes will have been committed, because A.D.D. is a tour-de-force. "End Of The World" shows that Blake's frequent collaborator Ryan Tedder has learned from Timbaland's remix of of his song "Apologize" and realized the power of a slow handclappy/stompy beat underneath a ballad, though this song has its heart in Erasure-esque synth-pop. The fantastic "How Many Words" is another ballad with Erasure similarities, with Blake even bearing a vocal similarity to Andy Bell. It would be difficult to overstate how gorgeously sad and "instant classic" both of these songs are and how wonderful it is to have a popstar willing to make music like this.

In fact, the ballads on the album may way be the standout songs. "Without You" and "1000 Miles" are both electro-washed mellower tracks, with the former getting positively over-the-top epic in its final third and the latter inevitably drawing Police comparisons, while the mid-tempo "I Got U" is the song you'd have playing in your head the morning after, when you wake up first, make a cup of coffee, and just smile, if every relationship was a perfect one out of a PG movie. It's surely one of the cutest songs of the year--boy bands would kill for a song this good.

It's not all slow, though. "She's Makin' Me Lose It" manages to sound like it's simultaneously influenced by Prince, 'N Sync's "Pop," and JC Chasez's solo album. "What'cha Got 2 Lose?", Blake's seeming personal choice for the next single, is "She's Makin' Me Lose It"'s younger brother, with less Prince and more Daft Punk-as-sampled-by-Kanye robot voices; the "what'cha got to lose, not tryin' to be rude" section of it is deceptively catchy.

Earlier in the album, "Surrender" goes for a harder edge, maybe a little drum and bass influenced, and the piano-and-pop-rock undercurrents of the upbeat (musically if not lyrically) "Hate 2 Love Her" make it an irresistable ode to that relationship you know is bad for you but just can't break away from. "Here's My Hello" is in a similar vein, but without that rolling piano, slower, sadder, more electro, and with more longing, which makes it sound like it's not at all like "Hate 2 Love Her," but with an album this willing to pursue different sounds--though it never feels less than cohesive, except during the "interludes" of beatboxing tacked on to the end of some songs--and that sounds this little like anything any other mainstream American pop artist is releasing, you take the reference points you can get. "Gots To Get Her" amazingly makes its interpolation of "Puttin' On The Ritz" seem not gimmicky but rather a perfect fit for this ridiculously catchy horns-punctuated hip-pop song.

Those worried about an excess of beatboxing don't need to be. With the exception of those interludes and the all-beatboxing track "Bshorty Grabs Mic!", it's only ever one of many effects, an effective tool which Blake uses to help enhance the distinctiveness of the album but that never feels forced in. Lupe Fiasco's rap on "Know My Name," on the other hand, otherwise a funky mid-tempo track that has Blake deliver the verses in this languid, stop-start manner that's the verbal equivalent of a tease, feels pretty phoned-in. Maybe a quicker rap wouldn't have fit the not exactly rapid pace of the song, but the rap feels shoehorned in and lacking in energy.

As whole, though, the album is fantastic, full of ideas, hooks, a voice that perfectly fits the music being made, and a sound that no one else has at the moment which, though drawing many of its influences from the '80's, is wholely modern. Perfect pop that both means Audio Day Dream is a must-buy and that Blake Lewis as a man to watch. Let's just hope the rest of the world realizes it.

Note: (U.S.) iTunes also has a bonus track, "Human," an energetic electro track that is very much worth your time.


Right, so that's my review for the moment. I'm not thrilled with the opening/closing parts (I'll probably be messing around with them for a while; for one thing, as much as Blake seems intent on mentioning that he sees this album as his "2080s mixtape" in every interview, not every song sounds '80's-influenced, although that's a major theme), there's not enough talk about the overall feel of the album, and I attempted to be restrained in my praise for it (yes, that was my idea of restrained) when really I just want to run around screaming how a-maz-ing this album is, but really, I can't say enough good things about it. I have not lived an album this much since--well, I'm not sure ever. If we exclude beatboxing track "Bshorty Grabs Mic!" (which is really just an extended interlude) there is literally no track on the album I ever feel inclined to skip, and I can't emphasize enough how rare that is for me--I've never been an albums person, much as I'd like to be. This is by far my favorite album from the past two years--and when I say that, I mean out of everything I heard in 2006 or 2007, not just what came out in those years (and considering I had zero interest in music until about May 2005 and the beginnings of full-on obsession didn't really crop up until January 2006, that's really saying something)--and is currently contending to become my favorite album, period. I had such high hopes for this album and it even exceeded those. It completely lives up to the expectations and hopes I had when he was back on Idol (and can I just say that no one in the real world got why he was by far my favorite, even if I was under no illusions that he was technically the best singer; the promise of an album like this--which sounds like what I wanted and yet completely surprises me at the same time--is exactly why--this album sounds like Blake). I LOVE it.

As I said a few days ago, that's not the reaction I expect everyone to have, so if you've not heard it yet, you're better off putting my over-the-top praise out of your head and just hoping for a good album, because that you'll definitely get. Seriously, even if you think you've got no interest in it, give "How Many Words" and "End Of The World" a listen.

You can buy Blake Lewis's debut album Audio Day Dream here (physical) or, if you live in the U.S., from iTunes. I'm still worried about how it's going to sell, both first week and long run (it deserves legs, but promotion so far has been mishandled to say the least).

Next up: Lorie.


FiRe said...

Wow! I'm happy for you!

It is a very good record and I'm sure it will grow on me after just two listenings. Love all the hooks and sounds. Somehow it reminds me of Yazoo's "Upstairs at Eric's" when it came out. Maybe not the production but somehow... the feeling of something new. Well, Vince Clarke was the other half of Yazoo, so there you have the 80's connection and now he's in Erasure!

I'm sure when people listen to the album, they will be making analogies to other (80's) artists, just like you wrote in your review. Still, I think Blake has his own approach to music...

paul @ said...

stunningly stunning write up of an increasingly listenable and sturdy album. I am still in love with Puttin On The Ritz 2008 stylee but the ballads come an incredibly close second. I have had to revamp my 25 albums of the year list for this and it was totally worth it. While Shayne's isn't as inventive, i think the idol boys have done well with their most recent albums and whatever sales are I will be mining this little gem for months to come. Actually i was thinking that it was everything I wanted Robbie's Rudebox to be but wasn't...

AcerBen said...

Wow you only got into music in 2005? How come?

On first proper run-through of the album I really like "How Many Words", "Surrender" and "Without You".

The album has great production and it sounds really good through my Winamp FM radio compression simulator.

Hope the second single does better because it'd be a huge shame if he got dropped. He's got a very interesting sound.

Yuяi said...

Excellent review, PG! Very thoughtful and thought-provoking too. And who cares if you go overboard with praise for an artist(who is awesome) you like? It is your blog after all, so go for it. :)

Poster Girl said...

I love that response--the "wow, I'm happy for you!" one :D Do you know, you're right--even if I don't love or don't love as much an album I'm reading somebody else raving about (not that that's the case for you here, but in general), there's something so fantastic about reading about how thrilled that person is.

You're definitely right about him having his own approach to music. I seriously doubt he intended to make a song that happens to remind me of "Pop," but since he was a new artist, I felt like I had to draw comparisons to others so that people might be intrigued and go check out his work.

They have! And thank you :)

How come not earlier or how come in 2005? I think the answer to the former would be something like...I don't know ;) I won an iPod in 2005 and then all of that changed--I got addicted really quickly. Glad to hear you're liking some of his songs! He really does have an interesting sound, so I hope this album ends up doing well for him.

Thanks! And ha ha, yeah, good point!

Electroqueer said...

Hey PPG - I was fully prepared to not even really notice Blake as I tend to not notice too many reality TV singers these days, but all your coverage on Blake turned me into a believer. Love the album - it really surpised me even though I am not a fan of 'Break Anotha' But loving most of the other other tracks - it's fresh, an almost perfect pop album. Thanks PPG for praising Blake as I've been enjoying the tunes.