Wednesday, February 29, 2012

American Idol Elevenses

Dem Boys, Dem Boys

It used to be that you needed to have survived the early rounds of voting to prove yourself worthy of singing in front of an actual audience on American Idol. Not no more. Right out of the starting gate these “kids” are given the full monty of a big spot lit stage complete with screaming fans whose hands they are encouraged to touch like seasoned superstars at real concerts, a full band, an orchestra if necessary, and standing ovations from the judges.

Luckily, this year’s crop of boys were mostly up to the challenge. Clearly the producers have shied away from one of the things that made Idol such a guilty pleasure —watching the abject failures strut their stuff, both during the auditions and in front of millions of viewers at home. Nowadays we only get the good singers it seems, even if some are more good than others.

This makes things easier for the judges, who only seem to want to say nice things. I miss Simon’s unsentimental calling out of less worthy performances. What would he have made of Adam Brock’s campy “Think” last night? He would have said something about it reminding him of one of those ghastly weddings / hotels / cruises / cabarets featuring some flamboyantly gay chef who thinks he’s somebody because some drunks applauded his efforts on Karaoke Night. And he would have been spot-on.

What a total lack of balls on the part of the judges means is that we, the audience, are free to make up our own minds who to vote for unswayed by any professional opinion whatsoever. This is a dangerous thing, for it leaves the tweens in charge. If it was about the music, the singing and sheer talent, we have some clear front runners from the lads after last night:

Reed Grimm, Joshua Ledet, Colton Dixon, Phillip Phillips and Chase Likens.

For entertainment value I’m hoping Heejun Han makes it through, but only because I miss his awesome playing to the camera during auditions. It seems that now it’s all gotten “real,” Heejun is taking himself a bit too seriously.

Did anyone think the surprise addition was going to be anyone other than Jermaine Jones after all that emotional turmoil last week? Seems like a sweet guy, but he doesn’t have a chance of actually winning — along with the forgettable Deandre Brackensick, Jeremy Rosado, Aaron Marcellus, Chase Likens and Eben Franckewitz.

The youngsters are right to be shy sharing a stage with Ledet, whose rendition of Jennifer Hudson’s “You Pulled Me Through” clearly blew the lid off and set everyone on notice that a star is in the house. Mind you, if you’ve got the pipes, that song is easy to shine on.

Not so Likens’s attempt at “Storm Warning,” which was utterly lackluster (Hunter Hayes can only just pull it off himself), or poor young Franckewitz’s woeful “Setting Fire To The Rain,” which someone should have steered him away from: it’s far too big a song for a boy with that thin and high a voice.  A backdrop of fire does not a barnburner make. Likens may claim he’s country but who in contemporary country is he basing this on?

Folks are predictably divided on Phillips’s “In The Air Tonight” but something about it turned what is a dark and predatory song into something startlingly sexy. The challenge for him is going to be in versatility, showing he can do more than be the coffee shop guitar dude. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Play It Again, Brad

Brad Paisley: Diary of a Player

 Brad Paisley is many things — a superb musician, songwriter, singer, entertainer, host, and comedic actor — but he is apparently not a prose writer. The task of putting his life story into words has fallen to a ghost writer (in autobiographies indicated by the all-encompassing words “and” or “with” following the celebrity’s name) which is a mistake. It’s one thing to collaborate on songwriting with other songwriting professionals — but collaborating on a book with a writer is not the same thing. While David Wild in all likelihood handles the task admirably with what he’s been given, at the end of the day reading a ghost-written book is like hearing a story second-hand.

Paisley’s autobiography, Diary of a Player, attempts to showcase his well-known sense of humor when it comes to word-play. A “player” in this case means journeyman guitar player, rather than the less savory lothario. He can assume we will all get the pun because Paisley is known to be a clean-living happily married man. But the title’s pun is tanked by its inaccuracy: it is not a diary by any means.

We get taken on a journey through Paisley’s life in the usual fashion — starting with childhood and proceeding on accordingly. Because this autobiography uses his guitar prowess as its main theme, it begins with his getting his first guitar. Most other life events are culled in service to providing anecdotes about his career, except for those occasions when a bit of background info is appropriate.

The trouble is that what we end up with sounds like a transcription of Paisley talking into a tape recorder. The parts have just been arranged chronologically. This does not make for a gripping read. On paper, Paisley’s off-the-cuff humor flattens out. What he’s good at — what makes him such a good host — is that he is able to ad-lib well. Scripting his speech kills this.

The book is interspersed with hagiographic quotes from some of his famous collaborators, which comes across as a bit self-adoring (through no fault of his own), as well as tid-bits of advice about playing the guitar (which frankly I want to know far more of) — but they turn out to be standard things you’d take for granted.

What I’d like to read, as a fan and as a person who’d like to play guitar like him, is how HE plays guitar — what his difficulties were, and how he overcame them, and any tricks he has up his sleeve. How does he do that fast shuffle he is known for?

We often find premature autobiographies a bit tasteless. If you’re a celebrity, however, you can’t escape them. This book feels like it was an inescapable chore to produce. And to be honest, it’s a bit of a chore to read.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Crazy for the Eli Young Band

Flippin’ It

So the Eli Young Band slowly ran a monster hit, “Crazy Girl” up the charts and into the awards season nominations ballots with a video that was nowhere near as good as the song. It featured some kind of love story about busting a girl out of a mental institution — clearly a too-literal interpretation of the song’s double entendre.

The girl is crazy — about him, crazy with love, apt to think foolish things because of her feelings. She’s not actually insane. That’s simply creepy.

Someone at their label finally got the hint and decided to switch their official video to one which plays on an old standby: the concert experience video. This has worked very well for the Eli Young Band before, with their hit “Always the Love Songs.”

A concert experience video is excellent marketing because it suggests (strongly) to the casual viewer that this band is Hot and Happening: that thousands of fans have cottoned on to something before you that you clearly need to check out. Music fans want to feel like they’re not missing out — and nothing makes them feel they are more than a wildly exciting-looking concert.

Pretty much everyone releases one at some point in their career — Eric Church’s video for “Drink In My Hand” uses live footage and fan interviews effectively, and his tour-mate Brantley Gilbert’s label, The Valory Music Company, is placing their bets on it helping to launch their new star up where Church is.

The concert experience video is not the same as a live performance video. It simply lays the studio track over live footage of the band singing that song mixed with backstage and audience shots. Jason Aldean’s “Big Green Tractor” is a live performance; Tim McGraw’s “Cowboy In Me” is a studio track with audience screaming added. It is the ultimate in “look at me, I’m a superstar” PR. His upcoming tour-mate Kenny Chesney loves the concert experience format — with good reason — it showcases why he’s won Entertainer of the Year so many times. Here’s his last tour summed up in a nutshell in “Reality.”

Taylor Swift’s “Sparks Fly” video was mostly a trailer for her DVD, but it still gave you an idea what her live show is like.

Valory needs to stop putting Justin Moore in slick story videos and give us a live performance video of “Outlaws Like Me” as the next single. Seriously. What are they waiting for?