Monday, November 18, 2013

album review: 'make a move' by gavin degraw

As some of you know, the end of the year is coming up. It's always an important time for music critics, because we're the ones expected to put together our year-end lists to the general indifference of musicians and audiences alike. And for me, this year I'm making four lists: my top ten albums of the year, my top twenty-five songs, and - in the continuing tradition from my blog - the top ten best and worst hit songs of the year. These last two lists are drawn from the year end Billboard Hot 100 list, and it's also the only time I'll ever make a 'worst of' list, because, let's face it, I don't cover all of the terrible albums that get released (only most of them) and a 'worst of' list only really works with a limited field.

In any case, I've been making my year end best and worst hit songs since 2011, but today I want to look back to 2012, where I first came across 'Not Over You' by Gavin Degraw. And I'll be honest - it was an early frontrunner to make my year end list of the best songs of the year. But it didn't make the list and a year later, I'm kind of happy I didn't put it there. I had gone through a breakup close to this time last year, and 'Not Over You' did speak to me on a very visceral level - but at the same time, I was fairly certain that my integrity was compromised, and I felt certain that once some of my own angst had faded, I wouldn't like the song quite as much. And, surprise surprise, I was right. Don't get me wrong, 'Not Over You' still represents what Gavin Degraw and OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder can do at their best, with reasonably punchy songwriting and a lot of bombast that toes the line between sophisticated and raw.  

And yet, I didn't feel I knew Gavin Degraw very well, so I took a deeper look through his decade-deep discography (I know, I was as surprised as you probably are). Overall, he's not bad, but I'm not sure he's the kind of act I would actively seek out in most cases. His songwriting is decent enough for the most part, but I'm not entirely surprised it's taken until recently for him to 'break' in the mainstream, because the strident and occasionally gratingly nasal nature of his voice doesn't always fit his instrumentation, which can sometimes feel a little too 'small' for his vocals. But after the success of 'Not Over You' and his collaboration with Ryan Tedder, it appears that Degraw has recruited all manner of additional producers to pump his new album up with more energy. And while I'd normally say a move in this direction smacks of selling out, it's not intrinsically a bad thing, depending on what direction they go. So I picked up Make A Move (a month late... yeah, I kind of forgot this album was coming out... sorry) and took a look - how did it turn out?

Ehh... it's okay. Honestly, I can't help but feel a little disappointed with this album, because while it's not bad by any stretch, it's nothing all that special as there are just too many niggling elements that just don't work here. It's an album less defined by everything it does right and more by all of the little things that go wrong, and it drives me nuts that I'm stuck coming to that conclusion.

Let's start with Gavin Degraw himself, and I'll give him this: he's an emotionally intense singer. I wouldn't quite say his voice gives him the greatest emotional range or nuance, but you can buy his authenticity and that his emotions come from a real place. For me, it can overcome the sometimes clinically overwritten nature of his lyrics and imbibe them with some real passion. But he's a singer that works well with a lot of volume and a lot of air, and when he attempts to hit the same notes in his quieter range, he's not especially strong and I couldn't help but wince at a few moments, and the autotune doesn't really help matters.

What's more noteworthy is the songwriting. This has always been a strength of Gavin Degraw's material, because on the technical level, he's a pretty solid songwriter with a good grasp of rhyme scheme and melody. And while he doesn't really innovate in his songwriting topics, he's solid enough when he's singing about love and heartbreak that it's mostly good. The problems that start arising are whenever Degraw wants to come across like a 'tough' guy, mostly on the latter half of this album - mostly because he's completely unconvincing in the role. The closest he gets here is 'Heartbreak', where he tries to play off the fact that he's been heartbroken so many times he's detached from the experience, but doesn't that undercut the emotional resonance of, oh, I dunno, half your album? It gets even worse on tracks like 'Need', where he tries to convince a girl to dump a bad relationship and go with him (and I never like songs like this, because they always come across as having ulterior motives and this song is no exception), or on 'Different For Girls' or 'Leading Man'. On both of the latter songs he comes across like a real asshole as he tries to play the swaggering rock star alpha dude and it's an awkward fit for him.

The frustrating problem with that is that, instrumentally, the last two songs are probably some of the stronger ones on the album, thanks to producer Kevin Rudolf, who lends some of his characteristic punch and rock edge to an album that needs all the energy that it can get. And here's where we get into the one noteworthy feature of this album: it is a record very much defined by its producers over its leading artist, and that can be a problem when the production isn't uniformly strong. Sure, Ryan Tedder and Kevin Rudolf both contribute good tracks and Julian Emery does a fine job with 'Every Little Bit', but too many of the songs feel overproduced and very cluttered at the upper end of the mix. It makes the songs feel very top-heavy, as most of the primary backbeats are too lightweight to give the songs any heft or weight. It doesn't help matters that whenever a choral arrangement comes in, they sound thin and really out-of-place. And all of the various producers on this album really don't add to any consistent listening experience on the album as a whole. 

And this takes us to the biggest problem with Make A Move - it doesn't learn any of the lessons from the previous album's success. 'Not Over You' did gain a fair bit from Ryan Tedder's production which added dramatic weight, but it was ultimately a song that was carried on emotional resonance and vulnerability and was supported by a killer hook. This album... just doesn't have that emotional resonance, very little of the vulnerability and pathos, and very few hooks. Even 'Every Little Bit', arguably my favourite on the album outside of the title track, feels like it's a constant build-up to a payoff that never comes, and that's disappointing.

Ultimately, this album leaves me feeling rather lukewarm on Gavin Degraw, and it's not an album I can easily recommend or say that it's all that essential. Honestly, if you're a fan, there are a few passable tracks that aren't bad, but not much else besides that. Otherwise... look, Make A Move doesn't really have any bad songs (well, okay, 'Leading Man' is pretty goddamn bad), but it's not all that special either. To me it feels like an album composed by a selection of producers throwing ideas at a wall and trying to find something that will stick - and unfortunately, not a lot does. It's a 5/10 from me, and only a recommendation if you're a fan of this guy - and even with that, I don't think it's Degraw's strongest work.

And at this point, five albums into his career, I can appreciate Gavin Degraw trying to switch up his formula. But with the results on this album... maybe he should go back to what works.

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