Wednesday, May 21, 2014

album review: 'behind the light' by phillip phillips

So as I’ve mentioned a few times, I don’t really watch reality TV. Part of it is a factor of me not owning a TV and getting anything I’d want to watch online, but partially because most of the reality singing competitions just don’t really interest me. I mean, American Idol might have been a big deal about a decade ago, but you can’t say it is in the same way now.

Or can you? The late-period American Idol winners haven’t been all that bad upon closer examination. After all, I liked more of Scotty McCreery’s sophomore album than I was expecting, even so far as naming ‘Feel Good Summer Song’ as one of my favourite tracks of 2013. But of the late-period winners from that show, the one that really struck my attention was Phillip Phillips, a folk singer-songwriter who stepped up to the plate with a lot more character and personality than you normally see in reality show winners. And his debut album was surprisingly strong in that regard, bucking the trend of Idol winners delivering flavourless garbage on their debut record in order to maintain as much of their Idol audience as possible.

Now that’s not saying that album was flawless. Plenty of critics made the Dave Matthews Band comparison, and that’s not without merit, especially considering the frontman with solid acoustic guitar skills and a grittier voice singing about artfully crafted, if broadly sketched subject matter. For me, his production was a little cleaner than I’d normally like to see in folk rock, and there were definitely moments of clumsiness in his songwriting that stood out. But then again, the guy was also younger than me, the album was rushed together in two months, and it was his debut record, so I was willing to be forgiving here. And coming into his sophomore album Behind The Light, I wondered if Phillips might stand out a little better now that the brief folk rock revival of late 2012 had petered out. So I gave the album a couple listens – how did it go?

Well, it’s pretty good. An improvement from his last album, but at the same time, it’s also the sort of record that doesn’t give me a lot to talk about because it’s only an incremental improvement. Phillip Phillips is still playing in much of the same territory as his debut album across the board, and while there are definitely some standout tracks, I don’t quite find this album all that gripping. Which honestly is frustrating, because I get the feeling I should like this record a bit more than I do.

So let’s start with Phillip Phillips himself – and really, I don’t have any complaints. I’ve always liked the guy’s voice for its raspy exuberance and passion, and he has the dynamic range and emotional delivery down excellently. I will stress that he’s a much better fit for rollicking folk music than some of the grimmer rock that he crops up on this album. Hell, anger in general seems to be a difficult emotion for Phillip Phillips, as evidenced most on ‘Trigger’, a darker song exploring a partner’s depression in a relationship, and while Phillips is definitely convincing with frustrated helplessness, he doesn’t quite have the rawness to pull off the howling that’d be a better fit for Dave Grohl.

And it’s not just in the vocals, but the instrumentation too. Songs like ‘Lead On’ and ‘Fly’ opt for more of a rock direction, and I easily find them the weakest songs on the record, mostly because the dreary post-grunge styling of those songs lacks a lot of the flavor that the richer folk songs bring to the table. This is mostly an issue of guitar tonal choice and distortion: ‘Fly’ has an oily tone  that does emphasize the melody but doesn’t really flatter it, while ‘Lead On’ alternates between rollicking guitar and a subdued piano melody often covered by brushed cymbals and harmonized strings. In fact, if I was looking for an element of the instrumentation that stood out the most on this album, it’d be the strings section: smooth, elegant, tasteful, it crops up everywhere to mostly welcome effect, although I won’t say it’s entirely cohesive with Phillips’ fast-paced and intricate guitar work. And while that acoustic guitar is excellent and easily stands out as having the best texture and warm flavor of any of the instruments, I do wish, I can’t help but wish that –like on his last album – his guitar production was a little rougher and had a more prominent focus. As it is, it fits together into the whole cohesive picture of the album, and the album’s best moments are when Phillips goes for that sort of broad, powerful drama that his instrumentation can match beautifully. This is true especially when the production goes for a thicker, more cacophonous sound on songs like ‘Searchlight’, ‘Fool For You’, and ‘Midnight Sun’, easily the highlights of the record.

And it’s at these points that the comparison can’t be ignored, because from the vocal delivery to the backing chorus and pounding instrumentation and guitarwork driving the pace, it would be very easy to compare Phillip Phillips with Mumford & Sons, especially in their too-smooth production. And I’d be lying if I said that anything Phillip Phillips delivers on this album reaches the heights of pop folk rock songs like ‘Little Lion Man’ or ‘Hopeless Wanderer’, at least in melody. So to differentiate them, we need to look at lyrics and themes – and at first glance, it would seem like Phillip Phillips falls short. His songwriting isn’t as colourful, often sticking to relationship drama cast in very stark tones. And there are plenty of times where his songwriting can start treading heavily clichéd territory, like on ‘Alive Again’, which featured lines, “Like a flame on fire’… which he then proceeds to rhyme with desire. Or take the lead single ‘Raging Fire’, which featured the line, ‘Yeah, we’ll live until we die’ – that does seem how living works, I reckon, outside of some zombie situation.

But outside of some questionable moments like that, I’d argue Phillip Phillips actually makes his simplicity work for him and wrings out some solid nuance along the way, either through his delivery or the lyrics themselves. ‘Searchlight’ could have been intolerable as a ‘not over you’ song trying to win her back, but Philips’ palpable desperation and the fact he never actually finds the girl in question make the track that much stronger. ‘Open Your Eyes’ is a song directed at a friend who’s trying to be something he’s not, and Phillips’ advice to embrace the great strengths he has is a solid message. ‘Fool For You’ goes a little more personal, tackling the frustrating balance between love and one’s dreams, and in a move you don’t often see in this sort of song, Phillips plays the romantic and chooses love and holds no remorse. And then there are songs like ‘Thicket’ and ‘Face’, both songs that touch on mutually complicated relationships where Philip Phillips isn’t exactly in the right, but both songs are painted with a darker light to show exactly how his decisions  backfired to hurt them both. Granted, it works better in ‘Thicket’ with a little bit more poetry and framed as a retrospective, and the jittering strings section definitely earns its keep on crafting the fatally cracked romantic atmosphere. Hell, even a song like ‘Midnight Sun’, which is basically just a ‘follow your dreams’ track that could be slotted into a Disney movie has a great melody and enough real dramatic swell on its own to earn it.

So yeah, in the end, I actually quite liked this album. It’s not going to blow you away, and the folk-inspired tracks on this album are significantly stronger than when Phillips goes for rock. But as I’ve said before, there’s a certain power you can get by gunning for raw simplicity and sold execution, and Phillips connects more often than he misses. And while I would have preferred a little more instrumental texture and more ambitious songwriting, this is definitely a step in the right direction, so it gets a 7/10 from me and a recommendation. If you’re looking for some solid, mainstream-accessible folk rock, Phililp Phillips is a solid bet, and the album is worth a look. And you know, if Scotty McCreery and Phillip Phillips are the best of what American  Idol has to offer these days, maybe we should keep that show on a little longer after all. 

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