|06-22-2022, 09:00 PM||#11 (permalink)|
Born to be mild
Join Date: Oct 2008
Location: 404 Not Found
It's seldom I go for three album releases in a row, especially when the band in question has a lot more to choose from: I like to cherry-pick from their catalogue, to get a good idea of how/if they've developed as a band, or if their debut, for instance, differs very widely from their latest, or last album. I like to see what, if any, influences have found their way into their music over the years and if they've experimented or tried other things at all.
But the first three albums from Backstreet Boys all seem to be very much tied in with their sudden success, so I'm going to have to review them all. After this there's only one other I'm going to be able to stomach, so we'll try and take one from later in their career. Right now, it's on to album number three, and the one that broke them wide open commercially, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Millennium - Backstreet Boys - 1999 (Jive)
Although only seen as the second BSB album in the US, this was in fact their third release, and with the twenty-first century charging up behind them like an unstoppable locomotive, perhaps the title was well chosen. Perhaps it would, retrospectively, also refer to the millions of units the album would shift. At any rate, it opens with “Larger than Life”, with some annoying synth sounds, laughter and a dancy uptempo number to carry on where “Backstreet's Back” left off (in terms of opening tracks), with Brian Littrell again trying his hand at writing, though this time with two of the established writers, Max Martin and Kristian Lundin. Hard to see his input into this song, as it's pretty generic, but probably went down well with the fans. It's one of those many “empowering” songs BSB and other boybands would flood their albums with, telling their fans basically that they could control their own destiny, which is a bit ironic as the fans were basically being told what to like by the band and their label.
Their biggest ever single is next, and there's no place for Littrell in “I Want it That Way”, a mid-paced ballad with those damnable handclaps back again! It's pretty insipid, but then you can say that of a lot of BSB's work, indeed a lot of Westlife, Take That and any other boyband you care to name. The boys seem to have changed their “bad boy” image for this album, pictured on the album sleeve in immaculate white outfits, as if they're some sort of angels or ministers of some order. The songs reflect this new image too, with none of the “rock the house”/”Where's the party” type that populated the first two albums, and more love songs and restrained themes.
“Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely” is another ballad, and indeed another hit single, which perfectly suits their admittedly excellent close-harmony singing, some nice Spanish guitar giving the tune a bit of class, and I'm glad to say that for once the players get credited this time round, though in fairness there are so many guitarists it's hard to know who's playing on what. Good that they get credit though, as they certainly deserve it. Producer and songwriter par excellence Robert John “Mutt” Lange lends his expertise to “It's Got to Be You”, earning my undying enmity for squandering his considerable talents on such a throwaway piece of cr.. well, it's pretty formulaic, is what I'm saying.
Beautiful piano intro to “I Need You Tonight” helps me to push the ugly memory of the previous track to the back of my mind, and it's another lovely ballad, and well sung it has to be said, while there are two songs whose title begins with the word “don't” to follow, the first being “Don't Want You Back”, another dancefloor filler, with some hard percussion and some funky guitar, nice stride piano, a song which tries hard but fails to be a rocker, then “Don't Wanna Lose You Now” is not a cover of the Gloria Estefan ballad, though it is again a ballad. Littrell and Max Martin collaborate again, for the second time on this album and the third effort by the BSB singer, on “The One”, which starts in a balladic vein but quickly becomes what I think I'm going to have to term a “dancer” for the rest of these reviews. Not too bad for him, it made it to be released as a single. In fairness, it has a certain rock, or at least AOR edge to it, making it less annoying than previous uptempo songs from these guys, and with a little polish and a few more guitars it could even work for the likes of Bryan Adams or Richard Marx. Maybe.
Not to be outdone by his fellow Backstreet Boy, Kevin Richardson (doesn't he play for Sunderland? No? No, you're right, that's Kieran. Oh well...) tries his own hand at songwriting when he contributes to “Back to Your Heart”, which as you might expect is another slushy ballad, with some really nice acoustic guitar and the always-waiting digital piano backed by some solid keyboards and in fairness some quite effective vocal harmonies. Again, for a first effort it's not at all bad, even if he didn't strike out on his own like Littrell did. Another ballad (yeah, get used to it), “Spanish Eyes” is certainly a title that's been used before, but for what it is it does its job, with some tasteful guitar and castanets, not surprisingly, a nice orchestral arrangement filling out the melody. Not too bad at all.
And the ballads keep coming, in a veritable tsunami of slush and sugar, a wall of digital piano and acoustic guitar and soft percussion. “No-one Else Comes Close” is, again, a nice little tune, but the problem with having so many ballads on an album is that the really good ones start to merge with the not so good, and it's hard to remember a good track: by now it's all sort of blended into one pulpy, sugary mass surrounded by close-harmony singing and handclaps. And undeterred by this, we finish on yet another ballad, a final stab at writing for Brian Littrell, on “The Perfect Fan”. Don't think they're talking about the kind you use to keep yourself cool, either.
As I said, there's a definite change of direction for Backstreet Boys on this album. Perhaps realising that they were making it big, and about to make it bigger, they ditched the “bad boy/rebel” image and reinvented themselves (or were reinvented) as clean-cut, pure and safe, the kind of band a teenage girl's mother would approve of her daughter being into. The music backs this up, with no hard-edged or risky songs, no real references to things like partying all night or “getting a bad boy”. In ways, on this album it would appear that Backstreet Boys grew up, possibly becoming Backstreet Men...
1. Larger than Life
2. I Want it That Way
3. Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely
4. It's Gotta Be You
5. I Need You Tonight
6. Don't Want You Back
7. Don't Wanna Lose You Now
8. The One
9. Back to Your Heart
10. Spanish Eyes
11. No-one Else Comes Close
12. The Perfect Fan
And so we leap all the way forward to 2007, where their sixth album would be the first not to feature Kevin Richardson, who had left to pursue other interests (no, not to join Sunderland Football Club! I already made it clear that was Kieran!) but would temporarily rejoin the band in 2011, with a possibility of the move being made permanent, as he was never replaced. The album features a lot more songs penned by the boys, and is minus the participation of longtime songwriters Max Martin and Kristian Lundin.
Unbreakable - Backstreet Boys - 2009 (Jive)
It opens, interestingly, with less than a minute of acapella singing, which goes under the (admittedly imaginative) title of “Intro”, then kicks into “Everything but Mine”, a dancer with a pretty high tempo, and the first time I've heard them use my least favourite music tool ever, the vocoder. Why can't people just sing in their own voices? What? Yes I know ELO used them but that was a totally different thing. How was it different? Um, well, uh – oh! Look at that very interesting thing over there! Anyway, it's got a hard enough edge to it, almost veering this side of rock, though not quite. The handclaps are there again, but the guitars are harder, the drumming a little more powerful. As inevitable as the sunrise or revelations of a politician's expenses scandal, the first ballad comes in the shape of “Inconsolable”, though in fairness it kicks up a little within about a minute and becomes a kind of mid-paced track, with a little nod to Bruce Hornsby, particularly in the piano work.
So the first ballad proper then is “Something that I Already Know”, or is it? It also ramps up pretty soon after starting (hey, I don't know these songs! Don't blame me!) with something like a Kelly Clarkson sound, and I have to admit this album is less dance/pop and more towards the pop/rock side of things. I still wouldn't listen to it in a fit, of course, but of the four I've reviewed now, this is far and away the one I'd be least embarrassed to be discovered listening to, which is about the best compliment I can pay the Backstreet Boys.
I must admit, I never thought I'd say this about a BSB album, but, like, where are the ballads? Well, “Helpless When She Smiles” sounds like it may fit the bill, though I'm getting a little wary of these songs that start slow and then suddenly, for want of a better phrase and I'm aware it's a contradiction in terms, rock out. But this one seems to be a true ballad. Nice bit of electric guitar just there, and a very pleasant piano melody running through the song.
It's a hard thing for an old rocker to admit, but you know, some of the ballads on these albums could possibly end up finding their way onto one of my playlists in the future. Shh! Just don't tell anyone ok? I have a reputation to maintain! Dammit, I've always liked a good slow song, and I must admit these guys have all but cornered the market there. “Any Other Way” is not a ballad, a more upbeat, uptempo track with a sort of ABBA-like keyboard hook (or could be strings possibly), then the first (other than the opener) song the guys collaborate on is next. “One in a Million” sounds like it may be heading back in the direction of the original albums, too many damn handclaps and those vocoders again. Grr! They try again with “Panic”, but it's more of the same really, with the addition of a quasi-reggae beat. Not winning any friends round here, guys!
Perhaps they'd be better to leave the songwriting to the professionals, as “You Can Let Go”, with its semi-country melody, nice acoustic guitar and violins is much better, and they have no input into that, nor indeed into “Trouble is”, which with its again country-style guitar and rhythms balances back out the good with the bad. Nice bit of rock guitar in there too, tinging the song with a certain AOR feeling. Yeah, far better. Stick to singing guys, and leave the writing to those who make a living from it. Harsh? Maybe, but two bad songs in a row tells its own story.
There's some guest writing from one of the members of our next boyband to be reviewed, as JC Chasez from Nsync helps pen "Treat Me Right", but despite (or perhaps because of) his input, the quality level dips sharply for this song, then screams right back up to the summit for “Love Will Keep You Up All Night”, a beautiful piano ballad which benefits from the lack of their sticky fingers on the writing. The boys are also kept away from “Unmistakable”, another nice acoustic ballad that unfortunately suffers from vocoder* overload and handclap fever, and I would say the writers managed to make a mess of this without the Backstreet Boys getting involved, though as I listen to it it does start to get a little better, and I'll revise my original impression of this. It's actually quite good: while not in the same league as “You Can Let Go” or indeed “Helpless When She Smiles”, it's a decent enough song.
The lads are back then to finish things off with “Unsuspecting Sunday Afternoon”, a sort of acoustic coda and followup to the opener, some nice orchestral arrangements adding to the song and filling it out nicely, bringing the album to a pretty powerful and ultimately satisfying conclusion.
Like I say, of the four of the Backstreet Boys', so far, seven albums this is the one that I've hated reviewing the least. It betrays a leaning towards a certain harder, almost rockier sound, and though they'll always be the band teenage (and older) girls (and probably boys too, can't be that sexist) dance to, they do seem to be growing up, from their change of image on 1999's Millennium to this album (though I haven't listened to the ones in between), and their music seems to be growing with them. Whether they wish to shake the boyband tag or not I don't know, but on this album they manage to come quite close.
2. Everything But Mine
4. Something that I Already Know
5. Helpless When She Smiles
6. Any Other Way
7. One in a Million
9. You Can Let Go
10. Trouble is
11. Treat Me Right
12. Love Will Keep You Up All Night
14. Unsuspecting Sunday Afternoon
* You know, that could be the thrice-cursed hellish pop music feature known as autotune. I'm not au fait in these things. Very annoying either way.
So that's the Backstreet Boys well and truly catalogued, and as I switch off the viewer and power down my laptop for the night, I think about the impression this band has made on me as my footsteps echo loudly on the flagstones of the archive. The curator waves almost absent-mindedly to me: I've been here for the last week or so, going through the wealth of information on Backstreet Boys, watching videos, interviews, live performances and of course listening to their music and researching their career.
I always hated them, like I hate all boybands. Well, not hate really: there's little I truly hate. But I've cursed and reviled them for the insidious way they've taken over the charts and the image they've presented to the world of what a band should - or should not - be. But despite myself, the more I listen to and learn about these boybands, the less I dislike them. I'm never going to be a fan, that's for sure, but at least now I know the stories behind them, and it makes it a little easier to perhaps understand them, which was after all my intention when I began this series, what seems a lifetime ago now.
Back at the hotel, I thumb my mobile and tell Max I'll need him to drive me tomorrow. My research here in Chicotania is over, and it's time to move on to New Southland, to start learning about that other big American boyband, Nsync. I can hardly wait, but I do wonder if my opinion of them will change in the same way it's (kind of) changed regarding the Backstreet Boys? Well, tomorrow we'll start out on our journey and I'll have a chance to find out. For now, at this moment, exhausted and my brain exploding with facts, figures and dancing boys, there's only one thing I need, and that's sleep.
Trollheart: Signature-free since April 2018
|07-03-2022, 10:38 AM||#12 (permalink)|
Born to be mild
Join Date: Oct 2008
Location: 404 Not Found
Refreshed and with a somewhat clearer head, I rise at 7am the next day, to the sound of the telephone ringing as the front desk informs me my taxi has arrived. Finishing my packing and paying my bill, I head outside to meet Max, who is now sporting a just-started beard, and looks like some sort of Mexican revolutionary! We're soon underway; the trip to our next destination will be an overnight one, and we're scheduled to arrive at New Southland at approximately 10am the next day. Adhering to the laws of the land, Max will of course be resting during the almost twenty-hour drive, so we may in fact be later arriving at our destination than expected, but it's best not to fall foul of the police around here, or indeed anywhere.
The next subject for my article is Nsync, who I read as we drive got their name when the mother of one of the members noted how in synch(ronisation) their voices were. There's also something about the last letter of each of the bandmembers' first names spelling out the band name, but I tend to put less stock in that. Now, to do this right, there should be an apostrophe in front of the "n", but, you know, **** that. In contrast to the Backstreet Boys, Nsync seem not to have started out by auditioning for a competition, American Idol style, but with the clear intention of starting up a band, at least as far as founder member Chris Kirkpatrick was concerned. He met with our old friend, jailbird Lou Pearlman, who helped him put the band together and financed it.
Surprisingly perhaps, it seems Nsync hit the scene at about the same time as their genre-mates, Backstreet Boys, with only one year in between each's debut album. Pearlman was obviously getting greedy, or indeed greedier. Perhaps he was already anticipating the boys' discovery of the millions he had been ripping off from them, and was looking for fresh meat. Either way, Nsync ended up with their initial lineup as:
though the last was replaced before the release of their debut by Lance Bass, who remained with the band. Timberlake, who would become the most successful and well-known of the band, going on to have a huge solo career and get into the movie business too, was discovered at, of all places, the Mickey Mouse Club, as indeed was his mate Chasez.
Like the previous boyband featured, it was Germany that first took to and broke Nsync commercially, and it was on the German BMG label that their debut, again self-titled, was released, though later RCA, who took them on, had them record some new, “more airplay-friendly” tracks for the album, dumping some of the ones from the original German release. Oh, those Americans! They sure make the life of a reviewer tough! Unlike Backstreet though, this album features a few cover versions, but again Full Force write one of the songs.
As we drive through the night I slap on the headphones and listen to some of my own music, to prepare me for the endurance test ahead. True, listening to the music of the BSB was not as horrible as I thought it would be (in fairness, I'd rather listen to them than to Venom!) but it's still not my kind of music, and it's difficult to be impartial about it. But that's my job, that's why I'm here and that's what I intend to do.
I'm awoken by the sound of the car door shutting, and realise we've arrived at our halfway point, where we will rest before continuing on, thus satisfying the authorities. It's a small guest house we have stopped outside, and I'm in something of a fog, not entirely sure what time it is as we enter and are shown to our rooms. Max bids me good night and reminds me we need to rise early - he mentions 4am - in order to avoid the early morning traffic and make best speed to New Southland. I mumble something in reply and close the door, falling into bed. It seems my head has only hit the pillow when there's a rapping at my door, and I stumble towards it, wondering who the hell is knocking at this time of the night, to find it's Max, annoyingly refreshed-looking and eager for the off. I stare. Surely it's not four already? But it is, and soon we're back on the road.
I blink the sleep out of my eyes, let out an expansive yawn and wonder how it is that my driver remains so alert after what only seems a few hours of sleep? Still, that's his job, I reason, and return to my research.
When I next look up I'm surprised to see that we're passing another of those Lou Pearlman statues, signalling that we're entering New Southland, and the first thing that hits me is how similar, indeed identical this looks to the place I have just recently left. Is this a sign? Am I to find that the music of Nsync is going to be a carbon copy of that of the Backstreet Boys? While I stand pondering this I become aware that Max is extending his hand in farewell, and so I grasp it and, saying goodbye to Max I head towards my room in the hotel before making my way down to the library to assess the music and career of one of America's oldest “classic” boybands.
Nsync - Nsync - 1998 (RCA) (UK Edition)
Bloody boybands! Or, more correctly, bloody record labels! I've had to make a decision to get at least one of the releases of this, Nsync's debut album, and have gone with the UK version which was released one year after the German version, in 1998. Probably won't make that much difference, but it definitely adds stress to my already tough burden in writing this article. Anyway, this, their first album opens with “Tearing Up My Heart”, which is an okay pop song, a little more classy than the early uptempo Backstreet Boys material, though still with that annoying dancy beat, and this continues with “I Just Wanna Be With You”, which is the Full Force number for this band, but no huge surprises yet with a generic pop/dance number, a little more restrained than the opener, yes, but not that much different really. So little, in fact, that I've just left the room and come back to hear the third track, “Here We Go” has started, and it took me a moment to realise it was a new track! Generic, with a capital G.
The first ballad comes with “For the Girl Who Has Everything”, and it's okay but I have to say it's not a patch on some of the better ballads the Backstreet Boys have recorded (never thought I'd say that!), in fact mostly it's quite boring. A little better is “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time On You”, but it's flat and lacking the sort of emotion I've heard from the BSB, very much inferior to their music. Not impressed so far - oh, big surprise! Yeah, but I thought the same would be true of the Backstreeters, and yet here I am complimenting them, at least in comparison to Nsync. “You Got it” goes back to the tried-and-trusted dance songs, which I guess at least gives the boys a chance to work on their choreography, but otherwise it's pretty empty.
“I Need Love” confuses by starting out like a ballad, then the thumpy-thumpy drum machine beats cut in and the tempo goes up, and it becomes a fast popster/dancer, with those house-style squealy keyboards running through it. Yeah, I guess it's not too bad, at that. Synthpop stabbing chords, little guitar to speak of, but again very little in the way of emotion. Nsync come across to me as a band who were purely in this to make money, and didn't care too much about their music or the message it got across. Could be wrong, of course, but so far (about halfway through the album) this is the impression I'm getting: the music doesn't really seem to matter.
The same trick is pulled off with “I Want You Back”, slow ballad-style opening then it kicks into another uptempo dancer, though not as high-energy as the previous. One of the two covers on the album, they do a reasonable job with David Gates' timeless “Everything I Own”, even if they do sort of rush through it a little. But it's not a terrible job. Nice orchestral arrangement at least, but it's fairly devoid of the emotion in the original by Bread. It's followed by a ballad, and “I Drive Myself Crazy” (which could be my anthem for this project!) is probably about the best I've heard from them up to now: nice understated acoustic guitar, bloody handclaps again (!) and some decent vocal harmonies. Nice. But it's back to the dance nonsense then for “Crazy for You”, before we're into the second cover, another timeless classic, Christopher Cross's elegant “Sailing”.
Well, okay, there's a really nice acapella intro with some sparkling keyboards and then a nice acoustic guitar which stays true to the basic spirit of the original. It gets a little lost along the way though, as the various voices all vie to throw in their two penn'orth and it ends up being something of a mess, which is a pity as it started so well. And we're left with the annoying “Giddy Up” to close the first Nsync album, and leave me feeling distinctly unimpressed.
Not to keep harping back to the BSB, but though their debut didn't impress me much either, I have to say it was (back)streets ahead of this. Were you to tie me to a chair, strap explosive to me and force me to choose between the two, at this point there would be no contest at all.
1. Tearin' Up My Heart
2. I Just Wanna Be With You
3. Here We Go
4. For the Girl Who Has Everything
5. God Must Have Spent a Little More Time On You
6. You Got it
7. I Need Love
8. I Want You Back
9. Everything I Own
10. Thinking of You (I Drive Myself Crazy)
11. Crazy for You
13. Giddy Up
Also during 1998 Nsync released a Christmas album, but I have no intention of subjecting either myself or my readers to such a monstrosity, and it will be quite rightly passed over. It would, however, be the last album the boys would record on the RCA label, as shortly after the completion of their debut album, our good friend Lou Pearlman was in trouble again (well, strictly speaking for the first time, as BSB would not sue him for another few years yet, but we've already discussed that battle, so now here we are again) as Nsync accused him of ripping them off and taking half of their earnings, when he was originally only entitled to one-sixth. A legal battle ensued, and after settling out of court with the band Pearlman and Nsync went their separate ways, the boys leaving RCA and signing to Jive Records, becoming labelmates to Backstreet Boys, who had been with them all through their career.
It took them two more years (given the legal proceedings, this is perhaps understandable) to release their second proper album, but by now they were a recognised and popular commodity, and had no problem shifting the units. In fact, the album has gone down in history as the most pre-ordered on Amazon. Thought you might like to know that.
No Strings Attached - Nsync - 2000 (Jive)
With a lot less ballads than the debut, this was supposed to be Nsync's step into the “big world” of rhythm and blues and pop, leaving behind, to some extent, the teenpop and dance numbers, but it opens with a generic dance song, apparently a stab at Pearlman and his management team, the not-so-subtly titled “Bye Bye Bye”, and I see no real change in direction here, though in fairness it's only the first track: give the album a chance! Well, it's a little slower and less frenzied than a lot of their faster dance numbers off the debut, while “It's Gonna be Me” is about the same, though it starts fairly uptempo. A preponderance of synths and drum machines is definitely evident.
“Space Cowboy” has a lot of house/hip-hop style rhythms, with a guest vocal from Lisa “Left eye” Lopez (?) and it's very annoying, real club stuff. It's obvious that the only one who's dipping his toe in the songwriting pool at this time is JC Chasez, who you may remember contributed a song to the Backstreet Boys' debut album - or at least co-wrote it - and here he has a stab at three of the tracks, though Justin Timberlake is involved in one. That said, this is one of the three Chasez works on, so perhaps not so great an accolade? There's not a lot you can say, or indeed expect, from a song called “Just Got Paid”, and you get what you, ahem, pay for: a generic dance number with a kind of repeating rap saying (how original!) “Money Money Money”. Next!
Perhaps they were reading my mind, (er, in the future, yeah...) but the next track is called “It Makes me Ill”, and though I'm sure it's not meant to be taken that way, yeah, it does. More generic dance. How much more of this can I stand? Annoying popping keyboards, decent piano but that's about it. Can the great Richard Marx save me? Well, it seems that yes, he can. Penned by the writer of such legendary ballads as “Right Here Waiting” and “Children of the Night”, there's a world of difference between the rest of the album (thus far) and “This I Promise You”, a tender, perfectly-crafted ballad that absolutely goes down as the best I've heard from Nsync so far, though admittedly that doesn't say much. But if there's a standout on this album, then this is it.
The title track is another on which JC Chasez exhibits his songwriting “talent”, but it's not for me, and I'm just seeing - with a very few exceptions, well, one - a constant stream of faceless dance pap going past in an unremarkable, almost unrecognisable wave. At least there's some vaguely interesting hard rock guitar in this, for a short time, but then “Digital Get Down” brings it all back down to the lowest common denominator again, blasted vocoders! It's a worrying sentiment expressed in the next song, though thankfully time proved them wrong, as “I'll Never Stop” is more faceless pap, generic dance beats, close-harmony singing with more vocoders, drum machines, you have the picture by now. “Bringin' da Noise” doesn't do anything to improve my mood either, and I really can't see where the so-called “transition” from dance to r&b is here: this sounds pretty much the same as the material on the debut. At least BSB tried to change their sound, and with Millennium, mostly succeeded.
One more chance for things to improve, maybe, with another powerhouse songwriter getting involved, this time the mighty Diane Warren, who contributes “That's When I'll Stop Loving You”, a slow, soulful ballad which just oozes class which, as ever, tells. Justin Timberlake's effort comes with “I'll be Good for You”, with a sort of seventies soul/motown vibe, lots of heavy synth, snappy bass, not too bad really. And a pretty bad album ends rather well with “I Thought She Knew”, an acapella ballad which certainly showcases the boys' vocal talent and timing.
As far as a huge departure from their original sound goes, I really don't see it. There are, admittedly, less ballads and they call in some pretty big hitters in terms of songwriting, but for me this is a case of same old same old. Of course, that was what the fans back then wanted, and the album sold in its millions. Never underestimate the buying power of teenage girls!
1. Bye Bye Bye
2. It's Gonna be Me
3. Space Cowboy
4. Just Got Paid
5. It Makes Me Ill
6. This I Promise You
7. No Strings Attached
8. Digital Get Down
9. Bringin' da Noise
10. That's When I'll Stop Loving You
11. I'll be Good for You
12. I Thought She Knew
Their third, and as it turned out, final album was released the next year, featuring a lot more input from the band, with Chasez and Timberlake stepping up their contribution to the songwriting, and even helping produce the album. It was another millions-seller, and spawned a huge tour.
Trollheart: Signature-free since April 2018
|07-21-2022, 06:27 AM||#13 (permalink)|
Born to be mild
Join Date: Oct 2008
Location: 404 Not Found
Celebrity - Nsync - 2001 (Jive)
More and more vocoders, god-damn them! (To be fair(ish), I think I've learned since that this is in fact the bane of the proper singer, thrice-cursed Autotune) “Pop” starts the final Nsync album off more or less in the same vein as the previous, and again it's been hailed as having much more of a hip-hop influence, but as I'm not all that familiar with that genre I can't really say. There are certainly a lot of synth, synth-bass and sampled vocals in use in at least this track, a dancer with funk elements, and what may be I believe what the kids these days call “scratching”? The title track has a little more of a swagger to it, and the lyric seems to tackle the problem of being liked/loved just because you're famous - aw, the poor darlings! It's got a Paula Abdul/Janet Jackson vibe to it, more scratching and bubbly synth with programmed drum patterns. Both of these tracks feature writing input from Justin Timberlake - make of that what you will. Personally, I don't think it's a great advertisement for his songwriting talent. Featuring some videogame sounds in the intro, “The Game is Over” (see what they did there?) is nothing that much different, and the videogame samples, which continue through the track, get very annoying. I'm waiting for a ballad, as they're the only way I can properly comment on Nsync, whose music otherwise seems all very generic and formulaic.
Timberlake has his hand again in the writing of “Girlfriend”, their last ever single and one that got into the very highest echelons in both the US and UK charts, narrowly missing the number one spot in the latter. It's more mid-pace dance stuff though, and nothing particularly different from anything that has gone before. “The Two of Us” is JC Chasez's second attempt at songwriting on the album, his first being a collaboration on “The Game is Over”, and here again he teams up with Alex Greggs and Brad Daymond, and the result, to be honest, is not that much better. Pass.
Not getting much love from this album so far, and I haven't even heard one ballad. But hold on: here's some lovely cello introduction to “Gone”, with a nice little soft acoustic guitar, and it seems like we may have our first ballad after all. With Timberlake again involved in the writing, this is a lot better, but we are now halfway through the album, so it'll take a lot to turn this around. Still, this is a good start to build upon. Unfortunately, “Tell Me, Tell Me Baby” shatters that hope, with a return to generic pop/dance, and the intentionally supposed-to-be-funny false start is not at all, just comes across (to me) as smug and annoying. Particularly when the song is absolutely nothing to write home about.
A nice sentiment, as far as I'm concerned, “Up Against the Wall” has me casting about for my gun, but I can't find it. Shame. The absolute genericity of this album of pap has my ire rising by the minute (and my ire really needs to stay on the ground, you know): there's nothing special about it, and again I have to compare Nsync to the Backstreet Boys, with the latter coming up trumps in every case. This album, and this band, epitomise and confirm all I despise about boybands. The lazy, careless songwriting, the willingness to exploit a formula to the nth degree, the lack of any interest in progressing their music or even improving it. Nsync, it would appear, were happy to put out the same rubbish over three albums, and the public ate it all up and asked for more. Thankfully, there was none.
“See Right Through You” is basically nothing more than a crude excuse for me to laugh at the band again and agree that yes, I do, then there's finally some relief in “Selfish”, the second ballad, and it's miles better than what passes for music on the vast majority of this album. It's nicely constructed, with a soul feel and some tasteful digital piano, some nice breathy synthesisers, and in fairness I have to give some sort of plaudits to Chasez, as he's involved in the writing of this, probably the only other decent track on the album. It of course doesn't last, and we're back to dancing with “Just Don't Tell Me That”, beeping keyboards and drum machines with sampled synth blasts: yeah, we've (YAWN!) heard it all before, guys, too many times.
The legendary Stevie Wonder does his best to pull things back onto some sort of even keel and the album struggles to finish on a high note as he plays harmonica on “Something Like You”, which thankfully is another ballad, and very nice, almost Stevie-like in its melody, and something of a triumph for Timberlake, who co-writes it. We close though on “Do Your Thing”, which is a bright, poppy, and annoying dance tune, and is unfortunately the last thing you're humming (if you're humming) when the album is over.
No, I don't see any signs of progression here: nothing that makes me think these guys could have gone on to change the music they were playing, stretch beyond the limited examples here, and in two other albums. Maybe they didn't want to. They'd made their money, they'd conquered the world. Why buck the winning formula by trying something else? Maybe I just don't understand the boyband ethic, and maybe I never will. All I can say is I'm glad there were only three albums from Nsync that I had to review, but it was three too many.
3. The Game is Over
4. Two of Us
7. Tell Me, Tell Me Baby
8. Up Against the Wall
9. See Right Through You
11. Just Don't Tell Me That
12. Something Like You
13. Do Your Thing
Although they announced after this album that they were going on hiatus, ie taking a break, Nsync have never managed to get back together (awww!) since the departure of Justin Timberlake, who has of course carved himself out a very successful solo career, first in music and now in film, and with his heavy schedule it seems unlikely we'll be seeing any new material from the band in the foreseeable future.
I personally won't be losing any sleep over that.
Max picks me up at the library and drives me back to my hotel, where we shake hands and wish each other well. Tomorrow I board the train which will take me on a three-day journey south, to the region known as Tak'Thatten, where I will begin my research on probably the biggest and most successful boyband to come out of the United Kingdom, Take That. Max has been a great guide and will always be a friend, but the journey is far out of his legal jurisdiction, and anyway would cost me a fortune!
On the way south I will have plenty of time to ruminate upon what I have learned thus far, and compose my thoughts for the second part of this review. For now, I reiterate my findings that the music I encountered when listening to the Backstreet Boys' catalogue beats that of Nsync into a cocked hat.
If I had a cocked hat...
Trollheart: Signature-free since April 2018
|10-10-2022, 11:40 AM||#14 (permalink)|
Born to be mild
Join Date: Oct 2008
Location: 404 Not Found
It's been a long journey (though comfortable; the railway line here knows this journey is long and can be ardurous, so they go out of their way to make it as pleasant for you as they can - assuming you can pay, of course) south through Greater Boybandland, and as we've travelled I've occasionally looked up from my research and noted with disapproval the many shanty towns dotted along the route, where guitarists, keyboard players and other session men who have fallen down on their luck eke out a meagre living, perhaps busking in the street for coins, or desperately trying to cash in on long-faded glories. “Hey, I used to play with Boyz II Men” or “I taught the guys from Nsync all they know” are familiar claims around these parts, my guide tells me, and similarly disbelieved, ignored or simply not cared about. Most of these session musicians can lay claim to having played, either on stage or in recording sessions, at least once, with often more than one successful boyband, but it's a familiar story and no-one is impressed, more interested in trying to stay above the poverty line, while some vainly write songs (and often good ones) that nobody here will listen to. Were this a rock town, sure, they could make it big, but all across GBBL, from north to south and from east to west the story is the same: unless you can sing and harmonise and dance, and unless you look and sound pretty, nobody cares.
The guttering lights of each successive shanty town are soon left behind in the dust though. This train does not stop at any of them: there is no need. For anyone who has been lucky enough to have had their services procured by a boyband and is travelling my way, it's a fifty-mile or more trek to the nearest rail station, where shiny new plastic train tickets (one-way only: it's an expensive trip) are clutched in hand like bars of gold, quite literally the lucky musicians' ticket to the big time.
I reflect on the unfairness of it all. There is great talent here, but nobody will give them a chance. Unlike the streets of, say, Chicago, where though the blues are king they'll listen to any music, give anyone a chance, here in GBBL you HAVE to be boyband material to be even listened to. In my time here I've heard guitar solos that would make your hair curl, listened to aspiring rock singers that would make Coverdale or Bon Jovi green with envy, and heard people do things with keyboard, sax and violin that I would not have believed possible. Anywhere else, they would be well on the way to fame and stardom, but not here. Here, the boyband is king, and there is no room for any other type of music.
As day turns to night and the train ploughs on like an arrow into the gathering darkness, I notice that the landscape is changing subtly. The large, clustered skyscrapers I encountered in the north of the country, both in Chicotania and later in New Southland, gradually drop away, being replaced by lower, less cluttered buildings that spread out across the approaching skyline. Hills and meadows are lusher, somehow; greener and more rolling, and there's a certain something in the air that I can't quite put my finger on. Tired, blinking my eyes against the night, I give up trying to figure it out and turn in.
On rising the next morning I notice that cattle begin to appear along the route: sheep and cows mostly, with a few red and green tractors barely visible, chugging along as they till the fields. The sky here, too, is somehow bluer and clearer, fresher, not so smog-choked as was the case further north. As the train hurtles past a small town (village really, it's only a few shops and pubs and houses, with a church and what looks like a cemetery at the far end, almost invisible) I hear a sound I haven't heard for what seems like, and probably is, months now: church bells.
And then it hits me what's different about the landscape here. There's no other word for it, and it explains and indeed ties in with what's happening. The countryside has become more English. We have left behind the Americanised north, with its boybands from Florida and are heading south, into what must be the heartland of the English side of GBBL, where I will encounter bands like Take That and Boyzone. The landscape is changing accordingly, and there is, to quote the old poem, “a little (large) piece of England” that takes up the southern half of this country.
By the time we reach our destination it's clear that they have, to reverse the quote, builded England in Jerusalem's green and pleasant land. Tak'Thatten is a microcosm of English culture, a sterotypical one to be sure, with people passing by in bowler hats and with umbrellas tucked under their arms or being used as walking sticks, grey tube trains carrying people around the realm, while black taxi cabs honk and jostle for position on overcrowded roads overlooked by huge neon signs promising everything from a cure for headaches to holidays in the sun at rock-bottom prices. There's even a facsimile of Big Ben towering over a mockup of the Houses of Parliament. The sense of mimicry and the tawdriness of it all mirrors what to my mind epitomises boybands, and I shake my head, hailing a black cab to take me to my hotel.
Not long afterwards I'm down in the local archive, reading about and sampling my next target in this article, the most successful British boyband ever, Take That. Again formed by an impresario, this time Nigel Martin-Smith, I believe I may be kinder to these English boys that I have been to their US counterparts, and predecessors. This is mostly due to the fact that I discover that, unlike their cousins across the water (or indeed due north) Take That wrote all their own material. This is quite a revelation to me, as I've come, over the course of the two parts (so far) of this article to expect that the boyband in question is little more than a tool for the producer/manager/promoter, and that he always seems to exercise the tightest of control over his charges, usually making sure writers are drafted in to pen their hit singles, and most of the tracks on their albums. Occasionally, the boys will be allowed write, or participate in the writing of, a few tracks, but by and large these are in the minority.
Take That appear to be different, with all of their material initially written by group founder Gary Barlow, a process that continues right up to the present day. This by itself is enough to make me sit up and take notice, although the fact that they were, ultimately, another manufactured group, created to take advantage of and capitalise upon the success of bands like New Kids on the Block, is disappointing. Bands should grow organically, not be cultivated in a test tube, and they should be primarily concerned with the quality of their music, not satisfying a particular demographic. But, such is the world of the boyband. Perhaps Take That were able to break the rigid, constricting, strangling mould a little. We shall find out.
But first, who exactly are Take That? Well, they were formed by, as you've already heard above, Gary Barlow, and you surely need no introduction to one Robbie Williams, but who make up the rest? Well the full band membership is as below:
Of the above, only Barlow does anything other than sing; in addition to being the main songwriter for the band, he is also an accomplished pianist. So let's see if their music is anything different, as we sample their first album.
Take That and Party - Take That - 1992 (BMG)
To be honest, it starts off more like a jazz or soul track than a dance one, which I have to say is encouraging. “I Found Heaven” is apparently universally hated by the band, so that would give me hope that there is much better to be found on the album, as I quite like this. Boppy, uptempo with a lot of jazz and absolutely no synth stabs or, so far as I can hear, drum machines. Quite catchy, and indeed was a hit single for them, but one of the very few not written or co-written by Gary Barlow. One of seven of his solo efforts on the album is up next, but “Once You've Tasted Love” is, in my opinion, far inferior to the opener, with a lot more emphasis on dance rhythms and something akin to the dreaded SAW (Stock/Aitken/Waterman) drumbeat that permeated everything they put out in the eighties, from Rick Astley to Kylie.
Their cover of Tavares' “It Only Takes a Minute” is well removed from the original, almost unrecognisable, very in that Nsync/Backstreet Boys vein, with twiddly, sparkling keyboards and that annoying drumbeat again, another fast dancer, which has my heart sinking. I thought these guys were going to be different, stand out from the pack? Then, all of a sudden, to quote the title of their second album, everything changes with “A Million Love Songs”. Another solo Barlow effort, this finally showcases what an incredible burgeoning talent was there, with a sweet, beautiful ballad that somehow manages to stay just the right side of saccharin and doesn't stick between your teeth. Treading a careful line between formulaic ballad and proper love classic, the track falls easily on the side of the latter, and was to become one of Take That's best known and loved songs, and with good reason.
From the beautiful piano - played by Barlow himself, affording him another string to his bow, unlike the boybands we've looked at up to now - and sax opening to the motown-style rhythm, the excellent backing vocals, the tender sentiments familiar to any struggling songwriter as he tries to write a song to the woman he loves, to the breakout sax ending, it has everything. Add to that the fact that Barlow was only fifteen when he wrote this, and you have a song that has been, rightly, voted in some circles as the best ballad of all time. It really is that good, and if there's a turning point in this album, and in my view of Take That, this has to be it.
It's the first of three consecutive Barlow solo offerings, the second of which, “Satisfied”, is a dancy number but not too bad, certainly nothing like the pap we endured listening to Nsync. It's light and breezy, a little throwaway, but then, they can't all be classics like “A Million Love Songs”, can they? The third in this triumvirate is in fact another beautiful ballad, and like many - almost all - boybands, Take That would build their career on such ballads, and they would form the bedrock of their music. “I Can Make it” is nowhere near as good as “A Million Love Songs”, but it's a good ballad, showing again what an emerging writing talent Gary Barlow was at that time.
On the next two, he collaborates with other writers, and it shows. “Do What U Like” is a house/trance-influenced boppy uptempo number, sounding more than a little like Wham! It's not surprising that when released as the lead single from the album it utterly failed to chart. “Promises” is not much better, kind of the same sort of thing, then we have another one where Gary goes solo, and it's another superb ballad. “Why Can't I Wake Up with You” features again lovely piano and sweeping synthesiser lines, with a simple, understated vocal and some nice sax parts. He's involved in the last three tracks too, two of which he pens solo again, with “Never Want to Let You Go” being a mid-paced, almost reggae-style track, with some soul influences in the melody, while “Give Good Feeling” (terrible use of the English language boys!) opens on a breathy choral synth, but quickly morphs into another high-energy (I refuse to use the acronym) dance tune, though there are some good ideas in there, and it's not too generic.
I hated their version of Barry Manilow's classic “Could it Be Magic”, and that position will never change. Although it was a huge breakout hit for them, the song was changed from a tender, passionate and often faltering love song, sometimes unsure and then getting more powerful and dramatic as the piano lends Barry courage and strength and conviction. Take That turned it into a dance number, robbing it of all its emotion, tension and pathos, and reducing it to the level of something to shake one's booty to. I've always hated them for that, and even should this article end up with my having a greater appreciation of their work, that will always be between us, like a love affair that has been forgiven, but never forgotten, always in the background, waiting to be used/accused, ammunition for any future argument.
The album ends on the title track. Whether it would have been better to have ended on Manilow's mangled classic or this I don't know, but I would hate both of them probably equally. As an example of what the band were, or stood for, or were capable of, this is not it. It's a throwaway, easy ending to what is in essence not that bad an album, that doesn't leave me dreading listening to more of their output.
But a better closer would have helped.
1. I Found Heaven
2. Once You've Tasted Love
3. It Only Takes a Minute
4. A Million Love Songs
6. I Can Make it
7. Do What U Like
9. Why Can't I Wake Up with You
10. Never Want to Let You Go
11. Give Good Feeling
12. Could it Be Magic?
13. Take That and Party
Only a year later and they were back with their second album, which would prove to be their breakout one, hitting the number one spot on its release. With songs written almost exclusively by Gary Barlow, it brought Take That to the attention of mainstream music buyers and made them a household name, and one of the most popular, if not the most popular pop band in the UK, a mantle they would retain till the late nineties.The ttle of their sophamore album reflects this.
Everything Changes - Take That - 1993 (BMG)
Opening this time with the title track, a soul/disco effort in the mould of bands like Earth, Wind and Fire and the Spinners, it's a mid-paced dancy number with sparkly keyboards (except in ballads, keyboards always tend to sparkle when used in boyband music!) and a nice little bass line, certainly a dancefloor filler, but it was the Gary Barlow-penned “Pray” that gave them their first UK number one, a feat they would repeat three more times with this album. Despite its ballad-like title, it's another mid-paced dancer, though a little slower than the title track, and again retaining the motown/seventies disco keyboard melodies.
“Wasting My Time” has a sort of jazz/calypso feel to it, with lots of brass and bongo-like percussion, with a hint of cabaret and just a little shot of Phil Collins to it, then they reignite Dan Hartman's disco classic “Relight My Fire”. Never liked this, and Take That don't make me like it any better, but I guess it's a decent version, then the first Barlow ballad comes with “Love Ain't Here Anymore”, slow and swinging with very soul-style vocals, and no doubt the cigarette lighters were out in force when this was played live.
Borrowing a tiny little phrase from Madonna's “Borderline”, I find “If This is Love” a little generic, nothing terribly great to write home about, and perhaps it's telling that it's one of only two on the album into which Barlow has no songwriting input. “Whatever You Do to Me” is a big, brash, ballsy soul rocker, lots of brass and guitar, and works very well. It's followed by “Meaning of Love”, which again sounds like it should be a ballad and again isn't, though it is a Barlow song. Sub-disco tripe, I have to say, very disappointing. There's another outing then for “Why Can't I Wake Up with You?”, though it's given a real kick up the arse and turned into an uptempo popper, which personally I think neither works nor was necessary.
“You Are the One” opens with strings-like keyboards, then goes into another fairly low quality disco song, quite throwaway I have to say, but all is forgiven with the arrival of another fine ballad, the Barlow-penned “Another Crack in My Heart”. Or is it? No, scratch that: it's not quite a ballad, and it's nowhere near as good as we know he can write, but at least it's better than the awful “Broken Your Heart”, another dancy piece of nonsense. Sigh. At least it has a nice keyboard solo. The album closes strongly with one more solo Barlow effort, the lovely ballad “Babe”, but in general I like this album less than the debut, which I have to admit is not something I expected to happen.
1. Everything Changes
3. Wasting My Time
4. Relight My Fire
5. Love Ain't Here Anymore
6. If This is Love
7. Whatever You Do to Me
8. Meaning of Love
9. Why Can't I Wake Up with You?
10. You Are the One
11. Another Crack in My Heart
12. Broken Your Heart
Take That became a four-piece after their third album, when Robbie Williams was faced with an ultimatum by the band: kick the drugs and drink or get out of the band. He chose the latter, and few would have believed that he would stage a huge personal comeback and go on to become one of the highest-grossing solo acts ever, becoming a household name in his own right and a huge star. That, of course, was once he got into rehab and sorted himself out.
The boys, meanwhile, continued on without him, and so it makes sense that we then look at their first album sans Robbie, although to be honest I don't see him as having made a huge contribution to the band while with them: he didn't write any of the songs, he sung some but other than that he didn't look to be the kind of creative force Gary Barlow was, which makes it all the more surprising that Gary's later solo career bombed - in comparison - while Robbie's took off like a rocket. And the proof was then seen that, although he had not written any songs for or with Take That, Mister Williams was a dab hand at the old art of penning tunes.
With some help, of course.
Trollheart: Signature-free since April 2018
|10-10-2022, 03:48 PM||#15 (permalink)|
Born to be mild
Join Date: Oct 2008
Location: 404 Not Found
Beautiful World - Take That - 2006 (Polydor)
Although Robbie Williams features on the previous album, 1995's Nobody Else, he left/was dumped for the tour and did not feature on this album in any capacity. In fact, it would be another four years before he would reunite with the band, though of course by then he had already carved himself a career of his own and become pretty much a superstar, so he wasn't exactly sitting on his hands! Beautiful World was released eleven years after the split, and on a new label.
In a major shift in policy, songwriting credits were now given as “Take That”, rather than to Barlow or whoever was writing, but we can probably assume that he was still doing the lion's share of the songwriting. This album is also the first on which every band member sings lead vocals at least once, and indeed the first time Take That used an orchestra in their arrangements.
Right away, there's a HUGE change, with “Reach Out” closer to AOR than even pop, never mind dance, This is VERY encouraging! Really sounds like Take That have come of age, and I don't even feel embarrassed listening to this with the volume up loud. What a difference! Total pop/rock sensibility on this track, and you really have to remind yourself that this is the same band that put out such, in comparison, rubbish as “Do What U Like”, “Give Good Feeling” and “Meaning of Love”. Not so much a seachange as an oceanchange! Am I getting ahead of myself, overexcited for no reason? Will this quality persist throughout the album, or is this a one-off?
Well, “Patience” is a lovely little acoustic ballad that bears all the hallmarks of a Gary Barlow-penned tune, with some really nice strings sections from the London Session Orchestra, and indeed it was a huge hit single, and certainly keeps the top quality of this album up, while the title track, one of two to feature Howard Donald on lead vocals, is another revelation. I honestly can't express adequately my amazement at how good, so far, this album is, but more, how different it is to at least the first two. It's certainly knocking me down with a feather!
I can't at this point find anything bad to say. The songs are incredibly well-crafted, the vocal performances are perfect, the instrumentation is mature and well-arranged. Gone are the squeaky keyboards, the thump-thump-thump! rhythm, the annoying dance beats, the vocoder-aided vocals, and the aggravating bubblegum pop themes that damned many of Take That's early songs. I said earlier that Backstreet Boys grew up with their third album Millennium, but in comparison to the literal transformation of Take That on this album they're still just messing around. This is, quite simply put, amazing.
Even if there are a few bad tracks later on, I'll be able to forgive them and allow much latitude, so good has the album been so far. And yet, no, “Hold On” is another excellent track, lovely acoustic guitar and the orchestra providing great backup to a song which could happily share the stage with any rock song I know. Featuring one of three lead vocal performances from Mark Owen, it's proving they can all sing when the spotlight is on them, that there are no passengers here. Sorry for all the superlatives, but I am literally (not literally, obviously) floored by how this album has turned out. I in no way expected this, never in a million years. This album could turn me into a fan! I'm quite serious!
I think it's fair to credit John Shanks with at least some of the plaudits, as he co-writes half of the tracks here with the band, and I wonder how much of Gary Barlow is in these songs? A lot, I would think. There's still nothing bad I can (or, at this point, want to) say about this album, as the standouts just keep coming, with “Like I Never Loved You at All” another acoustic ballad with beautiful orchestral arrangement, and a passionate and powerful vocal from Gary. There's a real sense of maturity, of growing, learning and developing running through this album, almost as if Take That have done their time as teen idols, and now want to be taken as serious musicians. With this album, they're achieving that without any trouble at all.
Even when the tempo hits up a bit and I fear a dance track, “Shine” is really more a Beatles/Robbie Williams hybrid - yeah, I've heard this is an ad, that's why it sounds familiar. Very happy, very upbeat and just a joy to listen to. It's Mark back on vocals, then Gary's back for “I'd Wait for Life”, a tender piano ballad like his best work from the first two albums with the added power of the London Session Orchestra behind him adding punch, and emotion to a song already strong enough to, I'm sure, elicit an approving handshake from the master of the piano ballad, Barry Manilow, and all must surely be forgiven for the murder of “Could it be magic”, years earlier.
I'll tell you how good this album is. On every other one that I've reviewed for the boyband articles, right back to the beginning when I checked out New Edition, I quickly began a process of listening to about half of each track and jumping forward to the next, due to time constraints yes, but mostly because I didn't like what I was hearing, or knew how it was going and didn't look like changing. On this album I've not touched the forward key once, and I'm actually enjoying this so much that when the review process has completed and I have this uploaded, I honestly think - no, I know - I will listen to this again for pure pleasure. And I never, ever thought I'd say that about a boyband album. During the course of the reviews I've liked a few ballads, mostly from BSB, and was (am) going to sneak them into some playlists, but until now I had not come across a boyband album I would listen to through in its entireity if I didn't have to. Now, I most certainly will.
“Ain't No Sense in Love” is another emotional half-ballad, and it's true that the addition of the orchestra has given a majesty and gravitas to the songs on this album, but they can't take full credit. The songs are, to a track, excellent; there are no fillers, there is no (so far!) dancefloor rubbish, and I could not be happier with this album, nor more surprised by it. Mark is back for his swansong with “What You Believe in”, great acapella intro and sensitive acoustic guitar in a superb ballad, introspective and extremely emotional, almost a sense of the great Roger Waters in the song - who could have predicted that august name would be used in a review of a Take That album? Also a sense of ELO about it, especially in the chorus.
Look, this is the surprise of the year so far for me, and the most pleasant too. Not one single bad track so far, not even a weak one, none that I can say well it's okay, the rest are good so we can forgive that one. Every song is holding its own, every song is special, every song is excellent. Unbelievable. Beautiful strings ending, then the last vocal from Howard Donald takes “Mancunian Way” as the album heads towards its conclusion, and I'm actually sorry: I could keep listening to music like this for hours. More Beatles-like vibes in this song, more great guitar and piano, and although Howard would not be my favourite vocalist, (I feel he was much better on the title track), he does a decent enough job here. More ELO-style influences right at the end, and someone's child I must assume takes the last few words. Cute.
A folk tune on a Take That album? Well, at this stage I'm ready to believe anything, and Jason Orange's one and only lead vocal really suits “Wooden Boat”, taking the evolution of the band to its fullest degree. Play this to someone and don't tell them who it is, you can be sure they won't have a clue. Technically the last track on the album, there's a “hidden track” if you wait (and whereas before I would have groaned and avoided such a thing, I'm eager to hear more now), with “Butterfly” coming in over one minute after “Wooden Boat” has ended. It's another acoustic ballad, I'm glad to say, and features Gary on vocals, wrapping things up in fine style.
Not one single bad track. Let me repeat that: not one single bad track. Not even a weak or so-so one. The songs in fact on this album are all so good that I really can't pick a standout, and would say they're all standouts. Add in the wonderful “Rule the World”, which we all know from the film Stardust and its huge success in the charts, a track which was not included on the original CD and is not on my copy, and you have not only the most complete, successful and enjoyable Take That album, but the very best example of a boyband transcending their origins and breaking out of the constricting bonds that held them for a decade, and like the butterfly in the closer, struggling from the coccoon and spreading their wings, taking to the sky joyfully, a beautiful and totally new and different creature altogether.
1. Reach Out
3. Beautiful World
4. Hold On
5. Like I Never Loved You at All
7. I'd Wait for Life
8. Ain't No Sense in Love
9. What You Believe in
10. Mancunian way
11. Wooden Boat
12. Butterfly (hidden track)
After this, well, this epiphany, this revelation, I feel the need to quickly run outside the echoing halls of the archive, out into the morning sunshine and jump up and down, punching my fists in the air and shouting “YESSS!” People look at me askance, but I don't care. This is the motherlode, this is what I had hoped to discover by plunging into the murky world of boyband music, the pearl among the swine, the rose among the thorns. This gives me hope. Hard on the heels of that hope though is the fear that perhaps this is a one-off, that after this Take That went back to their old format, and that this album would have to stand as the only example of what they could truly achieve once the chains were off.
I really hope that's not the case, but in any event we will find out, as the last album to be reviewed is their, as it were, comeback album, wherein they reunited with Robbie Williams. Once I calm down and wipe this big silly grin off my face, I'll be diving into that.
Okay, I'm ready now. Back to the archive I go, with a spring in my step that has not been evident for several months now, not since I began this journey.
After fifteen years and two albums as a four-piece, Take That were reunited with original band member Robbie Williams in 2010. Robbie had of course gone on to his own superstardom, having hit albums and singles, and selling out huge venues, but in 2010 he returned to the fold, to where it all began, and the album that resulted was the first to feature the original five-man lineup since 1995.
Progress - Take That - 2010 (Polydor)
It opens encouragingly, with a nice atmospheric synth, then the familiar voice of Robbie Williams starts the vocal on “The Flood”, and really he's never sounded better. Gary joins him as the song, er, progresses, and to be honest it's great, a real follow-on from the last album above I listened to, even though there was one in between I didn't review. I would agree with many critics though that although this (and possibly others on the album) is a great track, it has much more of Robbie's own solo feel on it than that of the band. But I'm not complaining.
Lovely strings from the London Studio Orchestra this time, and there's again a great sense of maturity about this song, hard to believe it comes from the same stable as Everything Changes et al. I don't know how much Robbie was involved in the writing on this album, but as I say, this track has his signature stamped all over it. “SOS” starts off with some frenetic piano then breaks into a bass-driven pop/rock song that even owes a little to the Clash, would you believe? This features Mark Owen duetting this time with Robbie, and although it has disco/dance overtones, it's nothing like some of their earlier dance material; very urgent, passionate and frantic.
Howard Donald joins Robbie and Gary for “Wait”, the first ballad on the album, again given extra weight (sorry) and meaning thanks to the orchestra. Oh wait, no it's not. Started off that way, but then drum machines and synth kicks in and it's more a funk/dance shuffle, again quite a Robbie Williams type song. In a way, it's a pity he rejoined, as it's now hard to figure out if Take That are continuing the evolution begun on Beautiful World, and changing their sound, or if they're just becoming a sort of backing band for Robbie, who it seems was not that involved or to the fore prior to his departure. But now he seems all over this, with the first three tracks at least featuring his distinctive vocal, so it's difficult to separate his own solo work from that of the band.
Indeed, he sings or duets on more than half of the tracks on this album, soloing on one, but the next one doesn't feature him, although the title is the same as one off one of his albums. The vocal on “Kidz” is taken by Gary and Mark, with a sort of bassy synth line driving the song in a sort of half-rock vein, then Robbie is back, with Gary, for “Pretty Things”, with an almost “With or Without You” keyboard opening melody, a downbeat tune with Erasure-style synth and bass. The contrasting vocals of both of the guys work very well on this track, and they stay together for “Happy Now”, another mostly low-key track with a nice line in synth and some moody percussion, vocals very understated, almost mumbled until the chorus cuts in about a minute into the song when it picks up in tempo and indeed mood, getting more upbeat and happy, some good guitar licks helping the song along, with a nice piano ending.
Robbie's last vocal performance on the album is solo, when he takes “Undergound Machine”, going all Laurie Anderson, with a big striding bass and guitar, quite rocky and very Robbie Williams. The remaining four tracks are all solo efforts, with the first up being Mark Owen, who sings “What Do You Want from e?” He seems to have an unfortunate lisp, which only becomes apparent when he sings without backup, but he does okay. The song is all right too, a sort of mid-pacer with some decent guitar and some effective strings, while “Affirmation” is Howard Donald's only solo appearance, with an almost “Chopsticks” piano intro, then busy synth and wheezing drum machines as the song picks up, becoming a fast almost-rocker. At least there is little in the way of true dance music here.
Gary takes the mike for the last (official) track, “Eight Letters”, gentle acoustic guitar opening and the closest the album comes to having a ballad, which is a pity, because though this is a good song I would have preferred a proper ballad just to round things off. There is another track, a “hidden” one, so perhaps “Flowerbed”, voiced by Jason Orange in his only solo performance, may provide it? Well it's only thirty seconds in, and proves worth waiting for, Jason's voice heavily distorted through a vocoder it would seem, very atmospheric until he starts singing without distortion. It's a nice little song, not a ballad but a good ending, even though “Eight Letters” makes a very decent closer anyway.
It's not the revelation Beautiful World was, but at least Progress doesn't go back to the vacuous dance tunes of the early albums, and it's another step along the road to musical maturity on this journey Take That have embarked upon since then. As an album, it would not be my favourite from this band, but it's certainly a close second. Does the return of Robbie add a lot to it? Yes, but in ways explained above it also takes from the appreciation of Take That, and I just wonder how much of their own material is in this album, and how different, if any, would it have been without him?
1. The Flood
5. Pretty Things
6. Happy Now
7. Underground Machine
8. What Do You Want from Me?
10. Eight Letters (includes “hidden track” “Flowerbed”)
I came here to Tak'Thatten, to the British side of Greater Boybandland, in the hope I might find something different. Initially, I was disappointed, but as I ploughed on through the albums of Take That I began to sense something else, something greater than just a boyband. Okay, not on the first album but by the second there were signs, and then of course once I reviewed Beautiful World it was a total surprise, and a pleasant one. I've grown now to see Take That as more a band than a group, or even a collection of singers, something that I would not say of any of the other boybands I've reviewed.
So this trip, long and tiring though it was, has not been a waste of time. In the sleepy hills and villages of England (or at least, what passes for a very stereotyped England here) I've finally found music I can appreciate, and a band who are willing to push beyond the tight boundaries placed upon them by virtue of their chosen genre.
Now it's a busride northeast, to see if my own countrymen can have as much and as favourable an effect on me as have my cousins from over the water. Tomorrow I travel to the land of Boyzeire, to research the first Irish boyband, but not the last; a band which, in turn, gave birth to a much larger and more successful one.
Trollheart: Signature-free since April 2018
|03-02-2023, 12:58 PM||#19 (permalink)|
Born to be mild
Join Date: Oct 2008
Location: 404 Not Found
It seems every boyband (even the one accepted as the first) were formed in order to emulate the success of their predecessor(s) and to be the “new [insert boyband name here]”, and so it was with Ireland's first boyband, Boyzone. Formed by Irish manager and producer Louis Walsh, they were to be the answer to Take That, and were put together out of auditions of hundreds of singers over the period 1993-1994. Though there were changes to personnel, the final and “classic” lineup was as follows:
Boyzone would go on to be one of the biggest selling bands in Irish history, until the arrival of their heirs, Westlife, who would blow all previous records out of the water. As I look out the grimy windows of the rattling bus making its way a hundred miles or so northeast to Boyzeire, I note that once again the landscape is changing. Seems to be something to do with climate control and high-definition graphics, but whereas it was sunny but a little foggy when we left Tak'Thatten, the sky has now completely clouded over and the rain is beginning to slant down as we head towards our next destination. Ah, Irish weather indeed! I almost feel at home!
Three seats down, two small men dressed entirely in green and with white beards shift in their places uncomfortably, perhaps aware of their size compared to the other passengers. One scratches the side of his nose and tilts his emerald top hat back a little, while the other hefts a heavy shilellagh and eyes the other occupants of the bus meaningfully, then extracts a pouch of tobacco, a pipe and tamps the material into the bowl. As he prepares to light it though, the bus driver announces in a tannoy address not directed specifically but meant for only him: GREEN STAR BUS LINES WOULD LIKE TO REMIND PASSENGERS THAT SMOKING OF ANY KIND IS FORBIDDEN ON THEIR SERVICES. THANK YOU.
The little man snarls at no-one in particular, stows the pipe and fishes out an ipod, whose buds he jams angrily into his ears, wincing, then leans back as the tinny sounds of Irish reels and jigs attempts to escape from his headphones, his black brogues tapping out the rhythm as he closes his eyes.
I shake my head at the idea of stereotyping, and note as the dawn gives way to the morning that the sky has now acquired a greenish hue. There are a lot more cows and sheep in the fields, and more than once we pass a slowly ambling gypsy caravan, brightly painted and going the opposite way, its driver hunched over the reins, face almost totally obscured by scarves, out of which a dirty trail of grey smoke curls into the morning air. Evidently, smoking IS allowed on gypsy wagons, I note.
After a while looking out the window, and with nothing else remarkable to see, I turn my attention back to the two little green men, and notice that the one listening to the ipod is flinching and grimacing as if not enjoying what he's hearing. I tap him on the shoulder and ask him what he's listening to. He tells me it's Irish trad (or traditional) music: “Ceilis (kay-lees) and shite.” He looks very glum, and I ask does he enjoy that sort of music, in answer to which he shakes his head sadly. “Hate the feckin' stuff!” he says with feeling. “Still, ye've gotta listen to it. Part o' the job, y'see.” I enquire further and he enlightens me that he and his friend are both employed in Boyzeire as performing leprechauns. I smile that such things do not exist, and he favours me with a withering glance.
“Sure I know that, and you know that!” he snaps, having by now thumbed the pause button on his ipod, an action that has brought an expression of momentary relief to his craggy features. “But THEY don't, do they?” I ask who “they” are, and he grates “Feckin' tourists. They come here, expectin' to see a version of Ireland of the Welcomes, y'know, land of saints'n'scholars, an' all that? Doesn't exist, of course, but try tellin' THEM that! Me an' Freddie here (he indicates his companion needlessly) are employed at one o' the big ho-tels (he says the word hotel in two syllables, with the emphasis on the first) an' the money is grand, but ye got to know the music. They want ya to dance, an' sing, an' then they try to trap ye to get yer bag o' gold.”
I ask if he really has a bag of gold, to which he snarls “Now, don't ye think, lad, that 'twere the case I'd be sittin' on this heap o' rust, headin' for another six months o' humiliatin', demeanin' work? Have to work, lad, to keep body an' soul together, ye know? So we have to learn all this stuff by heart ---” Suddenly he pops out his earbuds, throws them at me and thumbs the play button, upon which I am assailed by the sounds of Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy singing about Gallipoli.
“Bloody skiddily-idle!” he says with feeling. “I'd rather be listenin' to Blue Oyster Cult, ye know? But there ain't much call for “Don't fear the reaper” (rahter unfortunately, his thick Irish brogue pronounces it "don't fair the raper"!) where we're goin', lessen it's played on tin whistle, harp and bodhran! Gah! Bloody tourists!” I hastily hand the “leprechaun” back his player and shake my head, returning to my seat. Perhaps I have not so bad a job after all!
The gentle swaying rhythm of the bus as it rocks along the road coupled with the humidity and the almost hypnotic patter of the rain on the windows lulls me into sleep, and I'm suddenly aware of someone shaking me. I look up into the bushy face of the “leprechaun” I had spoken to, what seems only minutes but must surely be hours ago. He grins. “End o' the line, bucko! Welcome to the land of the green!” As he makes his way to the door, lugging some flight cases in which surely must be his musical instruments, the tools of his trade, his companion already ahead of him and dragging similarly heavy cases, he tips his wide-brimmed hat and looks back with eyes that I swear sparkle.
“If'n ye get a chance while ye're here”, he says, “drop in to the Bertie Inn. Ask for Shamus, I'll see ye right for a Guinness.” He scowls, a cloud passing over his furrowed brow. “Course, it's not me real name, but ye've got ta play t' the gallery, don't ye? Slan leat!” And with that Irish word of farewell he's gone, almost vanishing like a real leprechaun. I reluctantly pull my stuff together and struggle out of my seat, the last to disembark from the bus.
It's pouring rain (of course) and I hurry to the bus station, from where I catch a taxi to my hotel. All the way there the driver swears he knows Bono, and in fact had a tryout for U2 when he was younger. He also claims that he played for Shamrock Rovers but a leg injury cut short his career, and he's apparently also good friends with our president, Michael D. Higgins. I do my best to ignore him, some non-committal sounds and I busy myself with my laptop. It's not even switched on, but he doesn't need to know that.
Once at the hotel I check in, sort out my stuff and head to the nearest restaurant as I'm starving, then it's down to the library once again for another ten-hour shift. I read that the parents of Boyzone frontman Ronan Keating initially discouraged their son from joining the band, as he had a promising career as an athlete, and they believed he was throwing away a college education and a real chance to make something of himself for a pipedream. Wonder how they feel now?
Louis Walsh, of course, became famous as one of the resident judges on the X-Factor, and later went on to create and manage Westlife. Walsh retained tight control over Boyzone, almost like a domineering father, an attitude that would lead to a split between them later on in their career. I am, however, heartened to see that there is no huge statue of the impresario standing on a boyband as in the American part of this country: we Irish, even here, are less ostentatious. There are people we'll erect statues to --- James Joyce, Daniel O'Connell, Phil Lynott --- but Louis Walsh? Do me a favour!
Boyzone worked the club and pub circuit all over Northern Ireland during 1994, scoring an Irish hit with a cover of “Working my way back to you”, before they were eventually signed to Polygram and released their first album near the end of that year.
Said and done --- Boyzone --- 1994 (Polygram)
With early contributions to the songwriting by members of the band, the album opens with “Together”, a generic dancer with some nice keyboards and the boppy dancebeat that characterised Take That's first two, and most/all of Backstreet Boys and Nsync's material, but then there's a nice ballad in the shape of “Coming home now”, with an early attempt at a slow rap. Very soul-oriented, this is the first track on the album written by all the members of the band, though Ronan Keating did contribute to the opener. It's not bad, but for a ballad a little generic, kind of BSB in its style. Some nice vocal harmonies, but then you'd expect that, wouldn't you?
Their first cover then, the Osmonds' “Love me for a reason”, proved to be their breakthrough hit, smashing open the charts and making them a hot commodity not only in their native Ireland, but in the UK and Europe too. Another soul-style ballad follows, “Oh Carol” with another, far superior one in “When all is said and done”, this being another one written by the lads. Lovely Spanish guitar in this, and some nice piano. After three consecutive ballads, this is followed by a more uptempo track, another one written by the band, but “So good” is not quite that: it's okay, but a little weak and limp, returning to the empty dance rhythms plundered and used so much by boybands before, and after, Boyzone.
A sort of mid-paced soul ballad/popper then in “Can't stop me”, before “I'll be there” lifts the quality slightly with another mid-pacer, but better than the previous track. The big piano ballad is “Key to my life”, which scored them another top three hit, followed by another mid-paced half ballad written by composer Andy Hill, “If you were mine”, then they cover Sutherland Brothers and Quiver's “The arms of Mary”. Not a bad version, but it's a little hard to mess up. Bit too slow for my tastes. “Believe in me” is the last original on the album, a sort of pop half-ballad and the album closes with yet another cover version, which provided them yet another hit, Cat Stevens' timeless “Father and son”.
For a debut it's not bad, but draws too much on the style and influences of other boybands who have gone before them. There are also, to my mind, too many cover versions (three in all), but in their defence Boyzone started out writing a lot of their own material, similar to Take That, and so had a better chance of retaining some sort of control over what they put out.
2. Coming home now
3. Love me for a reason
4. Oh Carol
5. When all is said and done
6. So good
7. Can't stop me
8. I'll be there
9. Key to my life
10. If you were mine
11. Arms of Mary
12. Believe in me
13. Father and son
After the success of their debut album, Boyzone were now an established commodity, and any ideas that an Irish act could not follow the success of their UK and US counterparts was forever dispelled when they had their first number one single with a cover of the Bee Gee's “Words”, followed by another single just barely missing the top spot and charting at number 2, with Tracy Chapman's “Baby can I hold you”. After that, Boyzone performed live at the Eurovision and later Ronan Keating received an Ivor Novello prize for songwriting. The boys from the green stuff had arrived!
A different beat --- Boyzone --- 1996 (Polydor)
With a beautiful strings opening and nice backing vocals, “Paradise” opens the album with typical boyband sugar bombast, with Ronan now established as the band's main vocalist and frontman. It's a decent opener, somewhat more mature than the material on the debut, and features songwriting by some of the band, including Keating, who would become the band's main songwriter in addition to being their singer. The title track starts off on African/tribal beats, rather incongruously joined by a reedy vocal from perhaps Stephen Gately, hard to know as I don't really recognise any of the others. It acquires a kind of “Lion King” feel as it goes along, basically a ballad form with some hard drums, nice synth and some typically African-style instruments like maybe marimbas or something similar. Quite moving, actually.
Two covers follow, first is the “world anthem” called “Melting Pot”, which is all very well and good, but I don't really want to live in a world of multicoloured people! Following this is Michael Jackson's ode to a rat. Yeah, it's “Ben”, and it's as insipid as it was when Jackson sang it as a kid. Weirdly, whoever takes the vocal sounds very like the late King of Pop...
A real digital piano ballad follows, but I don't really find anything special about “Don't stop looking for love” --- could be sung by anyone from George Benson to Whitney Houston. Very generic. A little better is “Isn't it a wonder”, another single, another hit, a soul ballad before they launch into the big hit, their cover of Robin, Barry and Maurice's “Words”, which secured them their first number one record. It's good, but they take liberties with the verses I don't like, and I'm a fan of the original. “It's time” then comes across as a sort of reggae-lite song, bright and breezy with lively piano, while “Games of love” is more uptempo and dancy, but still listenable.
“Strong enough” is sort of their “Everybody (Backstreet's Back)”, a hard, funky dancer with handclap beats and stabbing synth, then “Heaven knows” is a nice little semi-acoustic ballad with soul overtones, pretty seventies but updated to the nineties. “Crying in the night” is a proper ballad though, with acoustic guitar and strings, then “Give a little” is a house/techno dance number that really just rips off early Take That, and the album ends on a cover of a classic traditional tune, the moody and atmospheric “She moves through the fair”. Arranged by Irish piano supremo Phil Coulter, it's bold, imaginative and with a very definite celtic air as oileann pipes and heavy drums set the tone, unfortunately when Ronan comes in he sounds distinctly ordinary, kind of ruining the atmos. For a proper version, check All About Eve's debut self-titled album. The arrangement is stunning though, and had it been an instrumental I would have given it a thumbs up no problem. Of course, had it been, it would be unlikely to have been on a Boyzone album.
So, no huge surprises then for their second album, but in fairness this has been the case for every boyband we have reviewed here. It always seems to take at least their third album before they come of age, as it were (although in the case of Nsync I'm not convinced that ever happened), so as Boyzone only released, to date, the four albums, I'm going to review them all here, and we'll see how they developed, if at all, as a band as the years and albums unfolded.
2. A different beat
3. Melting pot
5. Don't stop looking for love
6. Isn't it a wonder
8. It's time
9. Games of love
10. Strong enough
11. Heaven knows
12. Crying in the night
13. Give a little
14. She moves through the fair
Trollheart: Signature-free since April 2018