Friday, September 24, 2010

Stretch Armstrong

Can being too good be a bad thing? Clay Aiken noted in an interview this summer that his most recent album was recorded in Germany and he did 15 full vocals in 3 days. The songs were comfortable for him and he found it easy to sing them. Some might find this rather impressive, after all there are a few songs on the album that not every singer can do. The odd thing is that I found it left me with a rather unsettled feeling.

I don’t necessarily want him to sing songs where he’s too comfortable. Why? Well personally, I think he sounds best when he’s stretched. Listening to Clay sing old standards reminds me of watching a major league baseball slugger playing in a minor league ballpark. Sure, he’ll hit it out of the park-but so what. He should. And after 4-5 home runs in a row, even though you're impressed with the skill, it risks losing its punch.

Of course, I don’t want him to sing where he straining his voice. But are those few notes in Boston’s More Than a Feeling much different than the entire last chorus of his All is Well Christmas encore song?

He’s stretched when he sings pop rock songs and simply he nails them.

He's stretched when he sings funky/bluesy sounding songs like Everything I Don’t Need. He even described how the song was a stretch for him but his performance at the 2008 Gala for his charity was one of the best performances of any song I’ve ever seen him sing.

He’s stretched when he dances a little; until you watch him on stage and you realize how naturally his body moves to the music and how he can’t really help it.

So, why should he stretch?

Because he can. Because a talent this big deserves something better than songs half the world has covered and that are somebody else’s signature song.

Because it makes for a more interesting performance.

Because after awhile, it won’t be a stretch any more.

I’m sure I’m projecting personal preference here but I saw more joy and fun when he was on stage singing songs that weren’t standards. When he’s singing contemporary music, it’s all about the performance where singer and song matter at least equally or if anything the vocal ability matters more. When he’s singing standards, it seems to be more about the song itself. Like, "Listen! Isn’t this song timeless?"

They say those songs can stand the test of time. But at what point does a standard become just an old song, sounding dated rather than timeless. (I'm talking the song here, not the performance. The man can sing like no other.) His interviews talk about how nobody will be singing today’s songs in 50 years. My response is why do they have to? Why can’t we just enjoy them now? Sure, there’s a lot of auto-tuned crap on the radio right now, but there’s still good material there. He’s already proven he can write with the best of them. His song Lover All Alone is probably one of the best written and most haunting ballads in the last decade.

In three weeks, I’ll have the privilege of sitting in a Chicago theater as I enjoy a PBS fund raising concert of songs from his album of standards, Tried and True. I’ll enjoy it immensely, as watching him sing is a complete extra sensory experience. I was at the taping of his PBS special for Tried and True, Live! and it was a magical night. I've got tickets for three shows of his full Tried and True Tour next February.

But on the flight home, I’ll set my ipod to contemporary songs that made him reach beyond his comfort zone and proved just how good he is. Here's a little taste, courtesy of Scarlett's video from Hampton, New Hampshire.

Reach, Clay.