Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Clay Aiken Album Review: Expect the Unexpected

Clay Aiken releases his new album called On My Way Here today. This CD is his fourth album and his first album of originals since the multi-platinum Measure of a Man. Clay has indicated that this CD is the story of his journey of the last five years and one where he, producer Kipper (Sting, Chris Botti) and Executive Producer, Jaymes Foster were able to hand pick the songs and the sound. And did they ever handpick some incredible ones. Lyrics full of sophistication and complexity,which is what Clay wanted. It is an audio exercise in writing our autobiography from them while we peek over his shoulder at his.

The album is full of surprises for me. The title track, On My Way Here, written by OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder sounds semi-autobiographical for Clay, a aural complement to his book Learning to Sing. It’s a ballad full of both traditional pop sounds and orchestral instrumentation. But don’t get sucked into thinking this is going to be an album of ballads. It’s anything but.

Keep listening to the album.. The sounds, the lyrics, the unique use of his exceptional voice will surprise you. This ain’t American Idol Clay Aiken, it’s the mature, successful yet seasoned Clay Aiken, with just a little bit of cyniscm thrown in. This album has funky R&B, unexpected techno in the middle of a song that starts off slow, driving pop/rock and a jazzy love song that sounds like warm maple syrup poured over cinnamon pancakes. I’ve read “professional” reviews who call this an album of ballads and wonder if they hit the wrong button on their ipod. Or if they had written the review even before they started. It’s congitive dissonance. They expected ballad boy, they didn’t get it. They might have even sorta/kinda liked it. And they didn’t know what to make of it so the reviews become more of a review of Clay’s celebrity or Clay’s fans. Anyone who writes that this is an all ballad album with trite or schmaltzy lyrics, simply.didn’t.listen.

Thankfully, after having this album in my headphones for the last two hours, I can laugh at the ones who tried really hard to be nasty. First, there's the infamous Edna Gunderson of USAToday. A long time vocal Clay critic, it wouldn't surprise me if Edna ever accused Clay of faking his UNICEF trips on a Hollywood sound stage. Edna was a big Ruben fan and for some reason thinks that there's one more night of voting. When did you write that review, Edna? 2003?

My favorite has to be the 2 stars PEOPLE’s Chuck Arnold gave it. He called it full of schmaltzy ballads. Gee, I can’t remember the last time a techno driven pop/rock song or a funky R&B song was called schmaltzy. Once again, I put that in a pile of “didn’t even listen to the whole thing”. Here’s the letter to the editor I composed but didn’t send because it simply wasn’t worth it.

I find it very interesting that PEOPLE rated Clay Aiken's album 2 our of four stars for schmaltzy ballads when half the songs are not ballads and only one qualifies as schmaltz-like. Yet, then I remember that they also gave the studio enhanced Ashlee Simpson 3.5 stars. Must be because of the so very not schmaltzy lyrics of "Boys, boys, use your head but not that one." Clearly Chuck Arnold wasn't paying attention to Ashlee's advice.

Here's a quick song by song overview.

Ashes: A driving beat pop song that has your head bobbing from the first note until it kicks it into overdrive and you fear you will need chiropractic help. My absolute favorite track on the album.

Everything I Don’t Need: A funky R&B song written by Kipper that if played on the radio and callers were asked to guess who the singer might be, they would never guess Clay Aiken. Anyone attending a Clay concert knows he kicks serious butt when singing green eyed soul. But this is green eyed soul with a little bit of spice and a little bit of sex. You can find a live performance in this blog.

Something About Us: A love song with a soft jazz melody that's like a man rubbing his thumb across his new wife's lips before he kisses her softly. The first time I heard this song, I was the only one home with no one to slow dance with me. I even eyeballed the chihuahua but she's too short. A song fit for any romantic comedy that's still being cast right now.

Falling Another song with a pop/rock sound, perhaps a little more edgy than Ashes. Then just when you think you have this song pegged, bang comes some techno. I listened to this song for the first time with Nan and we both looked up at each other in happy surprise. As she said to me this morning, "if this isn't edgy, I don't know what is." I could see this song in an action movie, it kicks ass.

Where I Draw the Line: I didn't really like this one from the leaked snippets because it has a slight country tinge but the full version sounds a little less country. Vocally, it's great and the bridge is neat. I like this song but can't say I love it.

The Real Me: A song that is probably the most open to personal interpretation. I thought I would like this song more than I do. I actually liked the live version of it that he sang on TV earlier this week better than the recorded version. The melody drags in parts for me.

Weight of the World:: I find this song interesting in its use of different melodies within one song. The driving drum and guitar means this will be a song for 65 miles per hour. I like this song more and more with each listen.

As Long as We're Here: A song that Clay has called the "connective tissue" between him and Jaymes Foster as they both found the song separately and discussed it at meeting that resulted in the first of many album and concert collaborations. This song uses a fiddle and has a Celtic feeling. It's very interesting and once again Kipper introduces multiple melodies in one song. Vocally, it's superior but overall the song needs to grow on me. I think this is another one that will play better live in concert.

Sacrificial Love: This song will break your heart. Maybe it's a song about a rebound love, maybe it's a song about biding your time with someone who has been a long time romance that's not good, not bad...just empty. I like this song very much.

Grace of God: The activist/philanthropist is entitled to one socially conscious song and this is it. And it's a good one.

Lover All Alone: A song Clay wrote in 2006 that was the itunes bonus for his last album. Easily the most lyrically sophisticated song on the album, the song is a haunting duet of voice and cello. Listening to this without at least a lump in your throat means you are cold hearted or a pop music critic with a tin ear. Oh wait....that's redundant.

I was prepared to really like this album because it is Clay singing new music. What I wasn't prepared for was how full of surprises it is and how impressed I would be beyond the vocals, and the more I think about it, the vocals too. He does new things with his voice here that add an element of new to the familiar. While part of me knew he could do an album this good, another part of me is stunned at just how good it is. This is an exceptional album and is Grammy worthy in both vocals and production.

Visit the following places to hear clips or AOL first listen.


WalMart with bonus track

Barnes and Noble

And don't forget that little "add to cart" button.

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Anonymous said...

Have to agree with most of your assessment of the album. The only place we really differ is on Draw the Line. I've loved it since the snippets and it's even better than I hoped it would be. Love the iTunes bonus, too. It has such a gospel sound and feel.

We also agree on crazy Edna! How embarassing for her to still be in AI mode five years later.

pandarose said...

Thank you for a thoughtful review that really examines and discusses the music!

Anonymous said...

My first impression at first listen was how impressed I was. It may not be the greatest CD out today, but it's the best Clay Aiken's ever done. I love it!

Anonymous said...

About Ashlee Simpson. I heard her on tv a week or so ago, on several different shows, and she was terrible. Could hardly carry one note. I said to someone-well, I guess the studio does wonders for her voice when they record her. And sure enough, People Mag gives her a rave review. Maybe it's because of the tunes themselves??? Dance music, I presume??? Thank you for a decent and honest review of Clay. I think Clay is just about one of the top 5 talented entertainers out there today. He CAN sing, he CAN dance, he CAN act, he CAN write lyrics, etc. Yes, I do sometimes think he really needs to pick some more songs that really grab at the first note; ie. his incredible demos he did at 19 (yes, they are covers; but as some reviewers and fans keep saying "Clay does covers better than the originals"). But his voice is one of the best in show business and I do think he will be around in the business for a long, long time. Also, as a live performer; no one better than him right now. The way he connects with his VERY DIVERSE audience, his quick wit, his incredible stage presence--and yes, HE CAN ROCK! Check out youtube.com videos of his Juke Box Tour--especially his Elvis Set. Too bad RCA and Team Clay didn't get this one on DVD and/or produce a special for primetime TV. His naysayers would of eaten a ton of crow!!!

Anonymous said...

Finally a reviewer that knows what they are talking about. This is a great collection of songs, performed by a great singer, and it deserves to be heard.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more on the People Magazine rating. I was shocked when I saw it after seeing the Ashlee Simpson rating of 3 1/2 stars the week before. I saw her on the Today show and she really was terrible. Then there's Clay. He just doesn't have a chance with some reviewers especially when they don't even listen to it.

Anonymous said...

Now, THIS is a review! Why oh WHY didn't you send People your comment? It was a perfect response, eloquently stated. The mmost truthful comment I've read to date.