Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Singles Bar

I’m really curious as to how a record label selects a first single. In some situations the choice seems obvious, such as cases where a song is part of another medium such as a movie soundtrack or a television backdrop song. In other cases, what criteria is most important in this important selections? Other schools of thought are that the second single is the one to drive an album.

I ask this question because of the current choice of single for Clay Aiken’s incredible album called On My Way Here. There are so many possibilities for a single choice from that album, many which are radio friendly and which also would raise an eyebrow or two from those who associate Clay with ballads.

I guess that a single choice probably has two main goals. The first is to associate the song with the album as a whole in order to entice the purchase of the whole CD. This is obviously getting harder and harder these days when people can pluck individual songs from itunes or Amazon and make their own CD. The second goal is either choosing a song that is representative of what people like about that artist or the opposite, giving people a new look into what the artist can do.

The label’s choice for this album was the title track. At first glance, it might appear to be a good choice. The song immediately relates to the album in both name and theme since the album is representative of learning and growing in your twenties. The songwriter is Ryan Tedder who has produced hits for his own OneRepublic as well as that really repetitive, well promoted hit by Leona Lewis. And Clay sings it very, very well.

Yet, it seems to fall short as a lead single in a number of key areas. First, it’s a very long song so they had to truncate it for television appearances and so it has no time to build and the best verse is left off. When Clay has his usual high energy and fun interviews on the “couch”, the energy seems to leave the room with the slow buld up of the song. It’s also a ballad and could give the impression that the album is full of the same when that is not the situation at all. Providing the right impression that this album is not all ballads is important after the label’s choice to make Clay release an album of cover ballads in 2006. (I wonder what would have happened if he had been allowed to release this album like he wanted, after Measure of a Man.)

I’m not sure people think about the theme of an album when they hear something on the radio or TV and make that decision whether to purchase the song or the CD. Ryan Tedder wrote a nice song but how much of his success should be attributed to Timbaland (for Apologize) and the huge promotional budget for Leona Lewis. Unless you’re Elton John, do people purchase a CD because they know who wrote the song?

Clay indicated in an interview he has zero say in the choice of single. Some artists who have been around awhile seem to have some clout. Justin Timberlake was not happy with the choice of "Summer Love" for his single and while it was released anyway, he stuck to his guns and declined to make a video for it.

Clay has recorded songs on this album that would have been more radio friendly, been more sonically representative of the album as a whole and would have taken people by surprise in terms of the depths of genres that he can perform well. The biggest surprise is a funky R&B song called Everything I Don’t Need.

Get outta my dreams, there's no room left
Get outta my bed

See him groove to it here on AOL Sessions, along with four other tracks.

Another is Ashes, which can also be found in that AOL session.

I recognize that there are other factors that I am not aware of that go into a single selection. But right now, I can’t think of any beyond a tie to a movie, TV,endorsement or the Olympics that would trump the negatives of choosing a long, slow (albeit it pretty and well sung) ballad for this CD.

I wonder if asked off the record whether he really agreed with the choice.

Technorati tags:

new album

Friday, May 23, 2008

Clay Aiken's "On My Way Here" - Measuring The Gap Between the Critics and The Truth

Singer Clay Aiken talks with Kipper, Grammy-winning producer, while recording "On My Way Here"

I’ve been meaning to take a look at the histories of the musicians and technicians who contributed to Clay Aiken's wonderful new CD, "On My Way Here" since the credits were first available --- hey, I read movie credits, too, since I’ve been in them and I see the names of friends all of the time.

It took me two weeks, but as I Googled their names last night, I laughed --- and then I laughed harder.

The men performing with Clay in the "On My Way Here" video bear no resemblance to the Central Casting pop band in the “Invisible” video, as supplied by the director of that piece. These men have the look of people who have been around a while, and everything I could hear as I listened to the album revealed remarkable levels of musicianship. One of them, the guitarist, even looked a bit familiar to me, and I thought it was interesting that the pianist asked --- and was allowed --- to sing on the CD. I figured there was a story behind the names in the credits.

The CD reviews were so at odds with the evidence of my own ears. On song after song, supporting Clay’s extraordinary voice, interpretive skills and growing artistry, I could hear some especially fine musicianship and the same kind of top-flight production that earned Kipper and Sting a Grammy for "Brand New Day" as Best Pop Album. (The single named --- and singularly talented --- Kipper, Aiken's producer, has also worked with renowned jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, among other leading musicians.)

Kipper's interesting and innovative work is known within music circles, if not in the general public, but I was curious to learn about the artists playing in support of "On My Way Here." My tastes are eclectic, my collection is rather large and I've seen hundreds of live concerts, from pop to jazz to rock to blues to funk to soul to world beat... you get the idea. Listening to the CD, I heard inspired artistry and great professionalism, from the musicians to the engineering to the mix. But some of the reviews were odd, not criticizing Clay's peerless voice but everything that surrounded him, implying the CD wasn't worthwhile despite the evident vocal talent. That simply wasn't what I was hearing.

These are the men behind the “uninspired, stock music” --- as some of the critics would have it.

Keith Carlock – Drums

Keith has played and/or toured with Steely Dan, Sting, James Taylor, Donald Fagen, Walter Becker, Diana Ross, Faith Hill, The Blues Brothers Band, Leni Stern, David Johansen and the Harry Smiths, Richard Bona, Chris Botti, Wayne Krantz, Harry Belafonte, Oz Noy, Paula Abdul and Grover Washington, Jr, to name a few.
Keith was recently voted number 1 Pop drummer and number 3 Best All-Around in Modern Drummer's 2008 Readers Poll.

There's some interesting stuff at Keith's website and in this article from Drummer World Magazine.

Keith at the drums.

Freddie Washington – Bass:

Freddie joined Herbie Hancock’s band at age 19, and has played in sessions or on tour with Steely Dan, Michael Jackson, Al Jarreau, Aaron Neville, Lionel Richie, Anita Baker, B.B. King, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston, Donald Fagen, The Crusaders, George Benson, Denise Williams, Johnny Mathis, Burt Bacharach, and Kenny Loggins.

He has a platinum record as the songwriter of Patrice Rushen’s smash hit, “Forget Me Nots.”

Here is Freddie's Bio and a great article on his work with Donald Fagen from Bass Player.

Freddie and his bass.

Jon Herington – Guitar:

Jon has played with Steely Dan for both recording and touring. Jon has also toured with Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs, Bette Midler, Phoebe Snow, Madeleine Peyroux, saxophonist Bill Evans, the contemporary jazz superband Chroma, and jazz/blues organ great Jack McDuff.

Read Jon's Profile and his reviews at his website, and watch him featured on "My Old School" in this AOL video of Steely Dan.

Jon plays his guitar.

Jeff Young – Piano, Organ, Vocals:

Jeff has played with Steely Dan, Sting, Boz Scaggs, Jackson Browne, Shawn Colvin, Phoebe Snow, Michael McDonald, Curtis Stigers and many more. He appeared in the acclaimed Broadway musical “Gospel at Colonus.” Vonda Shepard once sang in his band, leading to Jeff being hired to play for several episodes of “Ally McBeal.”

Jeff on keyboards.

There's a connection between these four musicians.

The men on this CD are the longtime Steely Dan band, backing Donald Fagen and Walter Becker --- and not a single one of these “music critics” recognized them or their musicianship.

Fusing jazz, pop and blues, multiple Grammy-winners Steely Dan (Donald Fagen and Walter Becker) are one of the most acclaimed bands in music history. They are members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This is the caliber of musician that Clay Aiken chose as his session men for "On My Way Here."

But assumptions are an interesting thing. Critic after critic, determined to dismiss any effort Clay put forward, wrote reviews with little or no bearing on the reality of the music on "On My Way Here" --- right down to trashing musicians they had praised in other reviews. According to multiple sources, Keith, Freddie, Jon and Jeff are considered among the best session men in the world --- unless they are playing with Clay Aiken, apparently.

And as for the “sound” of the album:

It was recorded and mixed by Nathaniel Kunkel.

Nathaniel’s work with Sheila Nicholls, The Crystal Method, Lyle Lovett, Graham Nash, James Taylor, and Sting, among others, “has earned him the reputation of being one of the foremost authorities on engineering in surround sound.

“Nathaniel’s mix work has garnered him industry acclaim and awards, including Grammy awards for his work with Lyle Lovett, B.B. King, The Trio (Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton), and comedian Robin Williams; Surround Music Awards for his work with Graham Nash, James Taylor and Insane Clown Posse; and an Emmy for his recent work with Sting.”

Nathaniel is the son of drummer Russell Kunkel, a longtime James Taylor sideman.

Here's a great article on his work with David Crosby and Graham Nash from Mix Online, "the world's leading magazine for the professional recording and sound production technology industry."

Read about his Studio Without Walls, and check out the artists Nathaniel has worked with.

Finally, Cameron Craig engineered the strings.

Cameron is a Grammy-winner who has worked with Duffy, The Hours, Suzanne Vega, Amy Winehouse, Tina Turner, Joe Strummer, Garbage and Blur, among many others.

Unfortunately, musician's websites are often out of date, so there's just one mention of their work with Clay. (I suppose RCA didn't think it was worthy of note in the press release for this CD.)

So it doesn’t matter what some critics say, because they clearly don’t have a clue. I know that Clay got the best in the business to work on this album, people with experience, artistry, awards and respect within the music industry, where it really counts.

Working with Kipper as producer and Jaymes Foster as executive producer, Clay Aiken got to work with the best --- and the results are evident on "On My Way Here." It’s only fitting, because Clay is one of the best, as well.

So don't believe the critics' dismissals --- hell, don't even believe my praise.

Listen for yourself.

Listen for yourself.

If you like what you've read, please go here and DIGG it.

Technorati Tags:

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sacrificial Love

This week marks the season finale of Dancing with the Stars. I enjoy watching the show because years ago my husband and I took dancing lessons at a Fred Astaire studio before we got married. We thought we were pretty good. We especially enjoyed the Rhumba...quick, quick, slow...quick, quick, slow. Now I realize just how elementary we were.

When Clay Aiken released his latest album called On My Way Here, I had it on constant repeat. It's easily his best work and one of the best pop albums I've heard in awhile. There are great uptempo numbers but there are a couple of ballads that immediately created a DWTS picture in my head. A rhumba to Something About Us and a beautiful waltz to Sacrificial Love. The song is heartache personified.

Someone very talented must have had the same thoughts I did about Sacrificial Love because they created this glorious waltz montage to this season's best dancers. It's expertly edited and exactly what I had envisioned. Get out of my head, will ya?

I'd love to see Clay perform on next season's show. I'd really love to see him reunite with Ruben Studdard on this season's American Idol finale but it seems the show turned him down. I'll never understand that, he's the embodiment of everything the show set out to do, before it became jaded. American singer who couldn't get a record deal so was prepared to live his life as an educator in the classroom and sing for a hobby. And now, he's a pop star, a multi-talented entertainer and an educator around the world for UNICEF. The American (Idol) dream, right? And yet, the show that bragged about finding the best new talent won't let him appear. I wish someone could explain that one to me.

But I won't ponder it for very long. I'll listen to the beautiful Sacrificial Love and then I'll put on Everything I Don't Need and listen to Clay get his funk on.

Technorati tags:

Friday, May 09, 2008

Clay, Mo and Benihana

Clay Aiken and Mo Rocca sat down for a bite to eat and an interesting anthropology discussion about the cultural aspects of the Clay Nation. I'm not using that Claymate word because it will trigger the Knights of Ni.

The interview ended up like two guys chatting around a table. Mo was funny, Clay was witty and the laughter was contagious. Things we learned in this interview.

1. Clay can't use chopsticks and thinks that fork has three syllables
2. Mo doesn't know the that edamame are soybeans, not peas
3. Mo likes Clay's new album.
4. Clay fans are nomadic omnivores that don't sleep. We also have our "cycles" in synch. (The latter sentence sent both men into a fit of laughter.) We can use tools but not the phone.

Now, Clay travels with two female backup singers (who are fabulous) and he knows a thing or two about cycles being in synch. Witness this concert last summer in Sterling Heights, the first minute is hilarious.

I guess our new theme song is Bleeding Love.

Dear Mo, please tell Jon Stewart how funny Clay is. He's a political junkie and I think a Southern Baptist who is also a Democrat and an activist would make a great interview. Jon would find him well informed and very, very funny.

Here's Mo's blog. Make sure you don't snort out loud.

Clay Aiken and Benihana.

Technorati tags:

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Nightline Preview Interview: Playlist

Thursday, May 8 - watch Clay Aiken on Nightline at 11:30 PM and on Friday make sure to check out www.abcnews.com to find out which songs head up Clay's playlist. And be sure to read this new interview with Clay where he shares this story
"At five years old I threw my hands up and I was like, 'OK, I'll come sing,'" Aiken said. "And they said, 'Sing whatever you want to,' and my mom said she was paranoid, petrified, that I was going to sing "Islands in the Stream" at this little Christian puppet show and embarrass her. But I think I sang something like 'Jesus Loves Me.'"
and more . . . Read the whole article Nightline Playlist: Clay Aiken and check out the video of Clay performing Ashes from his new cd On My Way Here.

Technorati tags:

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Clay Aiken Performs Ashes

Short but oh so sweet video - to view on the ABC Good Morning America site.

Clay Aiken Performing Ashes from his new cd On My Way Here. Don't worry - he starts singing soon after the commercial. And after the song and commercial, they put up the intro interview as well!

Wonderful to see Clay's first performance of a great pop tune.

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.

Technorati tags: