FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Josh Groban, Coheed & Cambria lead the pack, while RED’s Release The Panic falls short
Welcome to “First Impressions,” a new weekly feature where we do a quick rundown of Tuesday’s most popular new releases. We’ll focus on mainstream artists and the good/bad they may bring to our ears and the music industry.
At the dawn of a new year, music fans eagerly await spring and beyond for artists to crank out new albums. That post-Christmas lull can be hard to overcome, but we have to start somewhere. February seems to have a bit more substance (all apologies to A$ap Rocky and Tegan and Sara, but January was quite lackluster). Still, it took some digging to find anything moderately popular to challenge a solid album by Josh Groban. As always, some release weeks will be better than others. In a perfect world, musicians like Kanye and Mumford and Sons would release albums every week. But instead, I have to wonder if the band Foals is popular enough to write about. (Editor’s Note: “Yes, it is.”) But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it (next week!).
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Josh Groban - All That Echoes
Is there anything left to be said of Josh Groban which hasn’t been written elsewhere?
On his latest album, almost nothing has changed. His vocal chords were forged from the same mystical realm as Adele’s. Lucky for Groban, the male version came without perpetual heartache. All That Echoes holds no surprise for Groban followers, yet talking about him will get old before his music does. It starts off with “Brave,” just another stalwart track in his ever-growing melodic masterpieces. Throw in the emotionally conflicting “Happy in My Heartache,” songs in foreign languages (“E ti Prometterò,” “Un Alma Más”) and covers (“I Believe When I Fall in Love” by Stevie Wonder), and you have a textbook Groban album.
But, oh that “Hollow Talk.” Originally by the Choir of Young Believers, Groban does a haunting croon on top of little plucks and hums for three minutes then … MAGIC. Those strings in the middle might be the single best moment of the album. It’s as dramatic as the man has ever been and a drop-the-mic moment. Josh Groban is only 31 years old and you have to assume that he has long since reached his vocal peak. He could make this album a million more times and I couldn’t knock it if I tried.
Coheed & Cambria – The Afterman: Descension
It’s 2013 and Coheed & Cambria remains an underground band few have hearddespite being the most unique and underrated rock band of the past decade. They create free-range rock deviating from diabolical themes to benign harmonies, while standing tall as one of the few remaining bands to consistently incorporate six-plus minute epics (“Gravity’s Union”) within each album. That is especially refreshing given that guitar solos have become an abandoned novelty among rock bands. Lead vocalist Claudio Sanchez’s distinctive voice, though a potential turn-off for some, puts Coheed within its own realm — neither above or below, just apart from their competition.
The Afterman: Descension is the second piece of a two-part album, following October’s The Afterman: Ascension. The albums comes with it’s own graphic novel, part of Sanchez’s Armory Wars, the story which the band’s music is based. Honestly, you don’t need to know what’s going on to enjoy what’s going on. Descension picks right up where it’s predecessor left off, staving off the staleness of Coheed’s previous two albums, Year of the Black Rainbow and No World for Tomorrow.
They thrive on bipolar album structures and with the funk-shred blend in “The Hard the Sell” and the odd jazz/cyberpunk “Number City,” Coheed is once again at it’s creative best. The album slowly tones down in the back half, putting a bright seal on a complicated double-disc journey. But by that point, the message was sold: they still rock.
RED – Release the Panic
RED is a rock band, and I’m leaving out the word “Christian” because, even though the band is labeled as one, it doesn’t matter. That term leads to misguided impressions, whether positive or negative. They play normal songs about human emotions based upon personal experiences. RED’s members just so happen to share a Christian background, which shouldn’t define them. At the end of it all, music is music.
This is the band’s fourth album and, as a long-time listener since their first effort, this was the first time a track failed to register chills on the first listen. RED relies on electric power with the grace of a strings ensemble, and Release the Panic sunk somewhere in a quagmire of all that. I have no idea if it was an effort to become “radio friendly,” but I hope that isn’t the case.
It starts off with the title track, which sets an oddly aggressive tone. It’s a different vibe than the rage-filled “Feed the Machines” intro from Until We Have Faces. Even behind the growls and semi-dark theme, “Feed the Machines” had an elegance to it and the rest of the album followed suit. “Release the Panic” sets the album ablaze from the start, sending everything that follows running for cover.
Salvaged from the destruction is the uplifting “Hold Me Now”, the straight-forward “Perfect Life” and the standout, “Glass House”, making this a decent album despite its flaws. Most of the intros are pretty sick. But coming from a band who has a reputation of making music with such precision, there sure is a lot of chaos. Fans who go into the album expecting a repeat of their first three albums may wind up disappointed, but enough quality songs remain to make this worth a listen for those hearing the band for the first time.
Opening with the sounds of lightly plucked strings like the stready drip-drip of percolating coffee, Josh Groban’s “Brave” urges us to surrender to a new day, smiling as we refuse to run away from things which simply “can’t be so.” Another brilliantly bombastic single from the patron saint of modern classical pop, Groban sets high expectations for his upcoming sixth studio album All That Echoes, due out Feb. 5 on Reprise Records. Here’s hoping the rest of the album meets the challenge, because “Brave” on its own is stadium pop music of the highest order.
Leave it to Josh Groban to craft an album with Rick Rubin that completely defies the “stripped down” reputation Rubin has built for himself over all those albums with Johnny Cash.
Full disclosure — I’m an unabashed Groban fan, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I even sang “You Raise Me Up” at my own wedding, for what that’s worth. But the new material on Illuminations pushes Groban in a smart direction. Clearly he’s not afraid to embrace his role in the music world as a lover of bombast, a singer of big songs for listeners who crave symphonic pop that isn’t ashamed to be as much pop as symphonic. Classical? Hardly. Glorious? If you keep an open mind, certainly.
“Hidden Away” is destined to become Groban’s biggest crowd-pleasing hit since “You Raise Me Up,” because he’s able to embrace a broad theme — don’t hide your talents and beauty beneath a bushel and all that — without drowning in saccharine treacle. Rubin’s production steps deftly to the side and lets Groban’s voice do the work, and the hook is right there to latch onto. It’s going to stick in your head and dare you not to try and sing along, matching Groban note for note.
There’s been a lot of talk about whether the song has a hidden message of religious or sexual tolerance. Whether Groban is gay is hardly relevant, but if the song is picked up by someone who is, and it gives him or her some sense of acceptance, I say let them take up the song as a shield. It could work in much the same way as Five For Fighting’s “Superman (It’s Not Easy),” which many took to be a direct reference to September 11th, despite the album it was on having been released six months prior. Did that take away from the effect the song had on all of us after September 11th?
In the end we take from a song what we put into it. And “Hidden Away” is a fine contribution to Groban’s musical legacy, one which I suspect will have a long shelf-life. And if you haven’t given Illuminations a listen yet, what are you waiting for?