Sunday, March 3, 2013

album review: 'all that echoes' by josh groban

In my list of the Top 10 Best Songs of 2012, I made the comment that there are certain acts called 'silent majority', which are acts that get hugely popular, but never quite attain the level of critical acclaim or rabid fandom that others do. This is a strange affliction that commonly hits soft rock acts, typically those that lack a distinctive personality and authorial voice. You know, like Coldplay and Foster The People. Now, the label can be disingenuous - often times these acts have a fair bit of personality hiding beneath the surface, but most casual music listeners aren't going to dig deep enough to find that. However, society and the critics aren't always wrong: sometimes acts get big without really having a lot to say or all that much meaning behind them (looking at you, Mumford & Sons!).

And if there was one act that really epitomizes the 'silent majority act' stereotype, Josh Groban would be it. Now granted, Josh Groban does have a fanbase - typically a bit older and with some significant overlap with the fanbases of Michael Buble and Celine Dion - but it's not the kind of insane fandom that epitomizes the biggest acts. You're not going to find someone who claims that Josh Groban is their favourite artist, and you'll be hard-pressed to call him a critical darling either. 

In fact, Josh Groban's artistic evolution over the past few albums really deserves an examination, because it's a study of an artist learning and trying to write better music. His self-titled debut contained no songs written by him and most were in Italian or French, a tradition that tends to alienate most critics. Most took a bit more notice on his breakthrough album Closer, which still had more foreign-language songs than English ones, but was a better showing of what Josh Groban brought to the table (three of which he had writing credits on), namely an incredible voice and top-of-the-line classical production supporting him. And while his voice was well-liked, his production was criticized for being overly grandoise and with more bombast than substance - which, in my opinion, is a completely fair criticism. Unlike Meat Loaf, Josh Groban's early songs just didn't have enough behind them without the voice and charisma, and while the public was able to overlook that, others couldn't.

Now Josh Groban's third album, Awake, continued a lot of the same trends by Closer (more English tracks), Groban really didn't write much more for it, and while critics were intrigued by more interesting tracks like 'February Song', they still didn't really support the album by any stretch, for most of the same reasons they were lukewarm or cold on Closer.  And even despite Josh Groban working with lots of new producers to fine-tune his production (often times 'shrinking' it, which I'd argue had mixed results), he still hadn't quite nailed the formula that would allow him commercial and critical success. It didn't help matters Josh Groban didn't have the incredible power of a smash single off of Awake like with 'You Raise Me Up' on Closer

So then Josh Groban did something that intrigued me and critics alike: after dropping a pretty solid Christmas album and a fantastic live album, he began taking a much larger role in the writing process of his material. This led to 2010's Illuminations, an album that nearly nailed the sweet spot of critical and commercial success, going platinum and getting some rave reviews. Interestingly, Josh Groban took the approach of writing 'smaller' songs, and in contrast to the overblown vocally difficult epics he was known for, stuck to a more conventional singer-songwriter approach. And while this did deliver some fantastic songs ('Bells Of New York City', 'Higher Window', 'Hidden Away', 'If I Walk Away'), I'd argue his best song 'War At Home' - in my opinion, the best song he's ever written - was easily his biggest and most powerful. 'War At Home', in my mind, is the theme music to the best DC comics never written, and it nails that glorious scope for which Josh Groban's voice is such an apt fit. And really, as much as I liked Illuminations, it was frustrating to see such a personality like Groban confine his scope to such 'small' songs. The critics liked it because the songs were better written, but I think I prefer Groban when he sings big sweeping epics for which his voice is a natural fit. I wanted him to kick the songwriting up a notch, not abandon his larger scope.

And so I had no idea what to expect going into his newest album, All That Echoes. Was I going to see him recapture that epic power backed by his steadily-improving songwriting talents?

I wish that was the case, because while All That Echoes is good, it's not great by any stretch of the mind. In fact, the first time I listened through the album, I was more than a little flummoxed at why things weren't clicking, even despite improved songwriting and some occasionally 'big' songs. I wondered if, like most critics, I was just not all that convinced by Groban's beautiful baritone and was starting to see the cracks. But I quickly realized that couldn't be it - hell, I've been on a Nick Cave kick for the past couple of weeks, and a good third of his entire style is overblown vocal delivery, and I fucking loved it.

And then it hit me - Josh Groban's All That Echoes is an album crippled by bad creative direction. It's the album where someone - I don't know who, but they need to be bludgeoned with a 2x4 - told Josh Groban that his music needed to feel smaller. Then that person discovered midway through post-production that they made a moronic decision, and instead of, say, starting over or getting Groban to redo some of the material, they added bad overdubbing and worse production. The absolute nadir of the experience was the presence of backing choirs and vocalists nearly overwhelming Groban, particularly on tracks like 'Brave' and 'I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)' (which is a terrible song title, by the way). 

I can't begin to describe in how many ways this is moronic. Yeah, they did it on 'You Raise Me Up', but that was nearly a decade ago and the gospel choir fit with the ambience of the album. Here, it becomes painfully obvious it's a production trick to make the song feel more 'epic' - and considering you have Josh fucking Groban, that should not be an issue! I don't have issues with overdubbing except when it's used badly - and here, it's worse than bad, it's needless. Britney Spears needs overdubbing because her voice is painfully weak and thin, a problem that Josh Groban has not, and will never, have. I should also note that whoever did the production layering of this mix should be smacked, because I can't count the number of times that Josh Groban was drowned out by his own instrumentation - and once again, this is Josh Groban, that shouldn't happen.

It doesn't help matters that the musical direction on All That Echoes seems disjointed and eclectic, lacking a consistent album theme and sound. 'False Alarms' sounds like a rejected Snow Patrol track, 'Hollow Talk' sounds like Ryan Tedder's worst production tendencies (abuse of reverb, grating and tinkling piano, too much ambient sound, sloppy strings), and 'Below The Line' sounds a modernized 80s TV theme. None of this would be bad if the album flowed well, but the constant shifts in sound and strange instrument choices really becomes distracting at points. It seems like Josh Groban was trying out a number of different styles, but it feels like idle capriciousness, rather than carefully choosing the right musical affection to spur the appropriate reaction. 

In fact, I'd argue that air of idle contentment is really my biggest problem with All That Echoes. Unlike previous efforts, this album lacks heft and truly big emotions for Groban to throw himself into, or to approach with lyrical or musical dexterity. I've spoken before about my contempt for mellow music in the veins of Jason Mraz and Jack Johnson, and I have to admit, the only thing elevating Groban's material above their dreck is his excellent voice and occasionally interesting songwriting and production. 

But the mood has changed. Albums like Closer and especially Illuminations worked so well because Josh Groban was singing about love and heartbreak and life's big emotions, and even songs like 'Bells of New York City' (which had the potential to be one of the most insufferable songs ever written) managed to have weight by delving into loneliness and grief. But All That Echoes is mildly, pleasantly, inoffensively content - and that drives me off the goddamn wall. Josh Groban is one of the few acts that can sell big emotions and is willing to throw himself into his music, so why is so much of this material so bland and completely unable to stir me beyond 'well, that was nice'?

And then it came to me - maybe Josh Groban, for all intents and purposes, is happy, and he wants to sing about that. And really, he's a music superstar living in New York following his dream, what's not to love about that? He's not burdened by scandals or drug problems or a crippling lifestyle - he seems, for all intents and purposes, to have his life together. And maybe as a songwriter, without that driving angst and tumult, Groban just doesn't have that much to say besides happy platitudes. And there's nothing wrong or offensive about that, if those songs are delivered well.

And look, for the most part, they are delivered well - this is a good album - but there are so many frustrating things about All That Echoes that really hamper my enjoyment of it. It says a lot that the best song of the album is 'Falling Slowly', which is a song from the hit musical Once (by the way, if you're a fan of alternative rock and you don't like musicals, check out Once - it's right up that alley and happens to be one of the best albums of the last decade). And really, it makes sense - Josh Groban throws himself into the moods of falling in love at the worst possible time, and trying to salvage something from it, and he completely kills that desperate emotion. Once again, it's proof Josh Groban can do this material, and maybe he just lacks the emotional impetus to write it.

So if you're a fan of Josh Groban, particularly his smaller, later work, you'll like All That Echoes. Me, I think I want Josh Groban to have an existential crisis on some level - I'd love to see what kind of music that might produce.


  1. Could not have said it any better!

    I am so emotionally 'unmoved' by this album that I probably won't go see him perform it with a symphony orchestra, something that before this album felt like an epic idea.

    No chills in the neck, no uncontrollable urge to sing along, it is just not there...

  2. I would say Un Alma Mas is the exception here - incredible song that Josh can sink his vocal teeth into. You're right - I Believe (When I Fall in Love it Will Be Forever) is a terrible song title. Also, I agree that Illuminations is a great album with many moving songs.

    Josh does best when he sings his heart out without a lot of backing vocals. Wonderful talent there.

  3. I AM a person who calls Josh Groban my favorite artist. I don't have the training or background to be a music critic - I just know what I like. He is the only artist whose music gives me a truly visceral reaction, almost without regard for what he sings. I LOVE All That Echoes, and perhaps that is because he does seem happy. If it takes an existential crisis for him to produce music that critics love, then my hope for him would be that he either not be concerned with the critics and continue to please his very large and adoring fan base that has stayed with him for 12 years, or that he just screw the entire scene and live happily ever after with his family. He's way too nice a person to sacrifice his personal happiness for the sake of pleasing professional music critics.

  4. Josh Groban is my favorite artist.

    I do like All That Echoes. And I love False Alarms and Hollow Talk as songs.

    One thing I notice about this album is that the sound quality isn't as good as previous albums. Another thing I notice is that Josh's voice is getting deeper with age, but he's still trying to belt out those higher notes the way he could when he was younger and doesn't always quite succeed.

    You compliment "Illuminations," though, when actually it did substantially less well than the earlier albums. Your taste as a critic is obviously out of touch with that of the public.

    Josh Groban, for me, is best as the first mainstream"New Music" singer, best exemplified, specifically by songs like False Alarms and Hollow Talk.

    You're obviously too much of a fuddy duddy to be able to listen to stuff that is paradigm shifting.

  5. I love all your albums your my earth angel but my very faviortes are live at the Greek you rock on the drums by the way.:-) awake and all the echoes.I hope you received my thank you card which was placed on your gift table at my very first groban concert on suggest 12 at Interlochen music camp .You were wonderful like always you reached my heart and soul made my spirits soar and your the only singer in the world that makes me weep joyful tears and takes all my blues away thank you for that your very special people just fall in love with you cause your just you.Since it was my first concert ever I wanted to meet you something awful but I was scared too I wasn't sure how you and darin handle it I saw you walking about camp as in your hoodied my heart said go meet him but I was scared to don't know why your very approachable I was just scared to but your a very special person we love who you are your truly a blessing and a gift just wanted to say thanks for you hope I will be blessed and honored to attend many more awesome live concerts sincerl molly.

  6. You obviously don't know an F-ing thing about Josh Groban and I'm glad you didn't pretend to in your review.

  7. "You're not going to find someone who claims that Josh Groban is their favourite artist" Well you're really wrong about that. I'm 20 and Josh Groban is my favourite artist. Also if you look closely you will find a lot of other people from all around the world who'd proudly say this statement as well.

  8. Josh is definitely my favorite artist. Don't think the writer did much homework.