Tuesday, July 29, 2014

album review: 'in technicolor' by jesse mccartney

So about a year ago, I went to see The Backstreet Boys live in concert, and surprise surprise, it was a great show. All five of them sound fantastic, they're still stellar dancers, and the multi-part harmonies were paired with some killer pop hits that have allowed them to sell out some pretty sizable venues. Even if you're not a fan of the group or you think that the 90s boy bands should have stayed in that decade and be rightly forgotten, it'd be hard to deny that the Backstreet Boys' longevity and stage production was pretty damn solid.

But what surprised me about the show was their opening act: Jesse McCartney, an act of which the majority of you probably forgot existed but who was briefly relevant in the spotlight in the confused pop charts of the late 2000s with his two major singles 'Leavin'' and 'How Do You Sleep'. And honestly, I really liked 'Leavin' and a few relistens reminded me why - the electronic elements were tasteful, it was confident and sincere without being insufferable, and the abuse of autotune that plagued R&B-inspired pop songs of the era was mostly muted. It was the definition of the sort of slick pop song Justin Timberlake could knock out of the park in his sleep - and unsurprisingly, the comparisons started immediately and were mostly unfair, because the two acts were in different lanes. Timberlake was gunning for Michael Jackson's throne, where Jesse McCartney had his eyes more on the blue-eyed soul of the past.

And thus, I really shouldn't be surprised that he finally managed to get his fourth album released when with the success of classier acts like Sam Smith, neo-soul acts seemed primed for chart success. And since I really did like his opening act and was curious to see more, I took a look at that album: how is it?

Well, it's pretty good, but at the same time, it's an album that can't help but feel a little anonymous at points. Sure, for the most part the music is solid and enjoyable in a breezy, infectious way, but there are points that could have afforded to push the gauntlet in the pop R&B vein a little harder to make the album really stand out. In other words, while there are moments of In Technicolor that certainly do have those flashy shades, other points feel a little washed out.

So let's start with Jesse McCartney himself - and honestly, I've got few complaints. It's clear he's giving each song his all and it definitely helps matters McCartney is stepping up to the microphone more confident and poised than ever, and he's got the pipes to back it up, especially in his clear and strong falsetto range. What it also does is reintroduce the Justin Timberlake comparisons... and you know, I think Jesse McCartney holds his own. JT might be the born superstar in the vein of icy, dominant sexuality, but McCartney's brand has a certain breezy charm to it that is looser and slightly more expressive, which allows him to introduce more of a sense of humor, which JT never really brought to his solo work.

That said, the comparison isn't always favourable, which takes us to instrumentation and production, where the album falls into two categories: the disco-inspired pop-R&B of the late 70s and early 80s; and the icy, minimalist reverb saturated realm of modern R&B. And the split in inspiration and energy between the two categories is palpable, because McCartney is a born fit for the slightly cheesy but irrepressibly fun R&B of that older era, and with the punchy percussion, horns, funkier guitar and bass fused with some surprisingly well-integrated modern electronic synth effects that never go hard on the reverb, we get a selection of great pop songs. 'Back Together', 'Young Love', and 'Tie The Knot' are all great examples of these sorts of songs, and they bring together some pretty solid grooves that show old-school flavour without being throwbacks. Unfortunately, the other half of the record is much more in line with modern R&B that shows more than a passing glimpse at JT, and the results are much more mixed. Don't get me wrong, I liked the aggressive bass of 'Superbad', the swirling haze and punch of 'So Cool' that reminded me a bit of Lupe Fiasco's 'Superstar' instrumentally in a good way, and the echoing, interweaving keyboards of the bonus track 'Catch & Release' made it one of the clear highlights of the record, but on the middle of this album there are songs like 'Checkmate', 'Goodie Bag', 'Punch Drunk Recreation', and 'In Technicolor Part II' that are so clearly trying to imitate JT's template and are nowhere near as effective. And while I liked the horns on 'Punch Drunk Recreation', the mix feels watery and a lot less fun.

And now we have to come to lyrics and themes. And let me stress that when Jesse McCartney sticks with upbeat, charming in a goofy way songs, his sincerity can lend a lot of character, fun, and soul to this record. I loved the excess of 80s references in 'Young Young', the earnest marriage proposal of 'Tie The Knot', and the admiring of his girl tracks 'So Cool' and 'Superbad' worked pretty well even despite the implicit bragging behind them. But where this album stumbles lyrically is when McCartney tries to play a more hard-edged character, and not only is it a fit for his too-earnest songwriting and delivery, it doesn't always come across as remotely flattering. For example, 'All About Us' is the questioning commitment to a part-time relationship and I'm expected to believe that this is an actual dilemma for McCartney? Or take 'Checkmate', a break-up song that uses a lot of conflict metaphors that reflect an arrogance that's a really poor picture on our protagonist, and 'Punch Drunk Recreation''s club player image is an even worse fit. The worst track, however, is 'Goodie Bag', where Jesse McCartney compares his girl to the bag in question, and do I even need to write the bad jokes that come with such a comparison?

That said, there are definitely two songs I thought were extremely well-written on this album: the piano ballad 'The Other Guy', and the break-up bonus track 'Catch and Release'. The first is set as a bedside conversation with the girl after cheating with Jesse McCartney, and he tries to convince her that it'd work better with him and for her to make a choice, because he knows exactly how it feels to get cheated on. And what works is the raw sincerity: it's very clear McCartney wants to be with the girl in this track, but he's very much aware it's her choice. And that consideration in framing comes up in 'Catch & Release', which is a surprisingly mature song where the girl is cheating on McCartney and sleeping around, something he's not up for, and yet he'd prefer she be honest and break things off and enjoy herself sleeping  with who she wants, because there's nothing wrong with that! He just wants her to be honest about it, and that takes a lot of the bitterness from the song and makes it surprisingly progressive and mature, which you rarely see in this vein, even though the parting shot that she'll probably get pregnant is a little in poor taste.

But putting aside Justin Timberlake comparisons, I quite liked In Technicolour by Jesse McCartney. It's not going to change pop music or blow your mind, but's it's a solid reintroduction to the guy and shows he's matured into a pretty solid songwriter who knows enough to draw upon solid tropes of the past, even if his usage of current trends is a little shaky. As it is, I do feel it could have used a little more punch in the songwriting and the modern production could have been a little tighter, which means I'm ultimately going to give it a strong 6/10, but if you've got a taste for this brand of pop R&B, give him Jesse McCartney another listen.

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