Wednesday, May 13, 2015

album review: 'stages' by josh groban

It seems like I've been breaking a number of 'rules' that I've traditionally held for myself, and today it looks like we're going to be tackling one of the biggest examples of that. Because everyone who begged me to cover Lady Gaga & Tony Bennett's Cheek To Cheek last year and who were put off that I really didn't have any interest are probably going to be exasperated I'm covering this - because hey, wasn't his rule that he didn't cover albums of covers?

But in the lead-up to this record, I began wondering why that is. After all, I'll talk about covers when they appear on an album, and there are plenty of examples where a well-positioned cover is just as thematically appropriate. Not really the case when you have a selection of Broadway covers put together by a classically trained operatic pop artist who is more well-known for his jawdropping vocal talents than his songwriting, but it could work. And let's be honest here: I knew Lady Gaga would do a fine job with Tony Bennett - Gaga's done that sort of material before, she's got classical training - but it didn't interest me in the same way, and after listening to the album a few times, I realized I had nothing I could really say about it, outside of it sounding exactly what I expected it would.

This is slightly different for two reasons, the first being Josh Groban himself. I'll admit that I like the guy: his material has never had stunning depth, but the man has the pipes, charisma, and power to elevate less-than-stellar writing, and I hold that his more complex 2010 record Illuminations - that had a Nick Cave cover of all things - is actually pretty damn excellent. My issue with him is that I've always wanted to see his material with a little less polish, see him get a little more visceral, challenge that incredible voice of his and test his emotional range. Now some of you might think that doing an album of Broadway covers might be flying in the exact opposite direction of that, but look at the shows he chose: Phantom of the Opera? Les Miserables? Into The Woods and Sweeney Todd? And - of course - a track from my favourite musical Chess? Sure, we're not crossing that many boundaries, but there's enough material to push Groban, and I honestly wasn't sure what to expect. That said, I didn't exactly have high expectations, and I'll admit the theater geek in me comes down hard on musical adaptations, so what did Josh Groban deliver with Stages?

Well, unfortunately, I was given all the more proof that I probably should have continued to avoid talking about covers albums, because Stages by Josh Groban gives me so little to work with, I probably would outright skip it on a busier week. It’s not saying the record is bad – far from it, really, it’s exactly as competently staged and well-performed as you would expect from a Josh Groban record. The better word is inoffensive – not quite a vanity project because it still is a risk releasing a record of theater covers to an audience who won’t usually care about Broadway, but it’s a calculated risk. And as such there’s not a single cover on this record that feels challenging, innovative, or all that interesting for me as a critic to really dissect without going into all out comparisons to the original source material and other stage productions. And fair warning, that might end up happening.

So let’s start with instrumentation and production – and really, it sounds exactly like you’d expect a Josh Groban record to sound – graceful pianos, elegant strings, hints of backing vocals and reverb to add necessary swell when you need it, and nothing with the slightest edge or bite to it in the production to add texture. A little exasperating when you consider Illuminations and even the overproduced All That Echoes at least tried for something more here, but really, it’s all intended to place the focus on Groban’s voice and his covers. That said, there are a few songs where some more interesting instrumentation creeps in – electric guitar shows up in the background on ‘What I Did For Love’ from A Chorus Line if you listen closely, and Groban actually recruited trumpet player Chris Botti for the Finian’s Rainbow song ‘Old Devil Moon’, and it’s actually integrated quite well. But after the first few listens of this record, you’ll notice that the covers Groban selected play very much to a similar template – and by that I mean piano-driven power ballads. That drives you into the issue of variety – yes, it plays well to Groban’s conventional strengths, but it also means that even despite coming from unique musicals, the covers start to run together, especially considering the majority of them play to broad generalities lyrically.

And to some extent, this is an issue with Josh Groban himself as a performer, and where we get into tricky territory. Because the guy has an impressive voice, a great range, and a ton of natural power that allows him to belt with impressive gusto… which makes it odd that more of this album doesn’t play to his baritone-baritenor range. Instead, many of the covers play in a slightly higher register, where Groban still has power and volume but it’s doesn’t quite have the same swell and sounds a lot more like work. But all of this is ties into a greater issue: emotive presence. This is an issue that can come with classically trained vocalists stepping towards this brand of theater in that, sure, they can hit the notes with clarity and power, but can they convey the emotional context behind their vocals? Without it, there’s a certain stiffness that can creep into their vocals that doesn’t feel raw or real, even if they have enough pure charisma, like Groban has. Now in the past, he’s been kind of hit-and-miss in this area – when given potent, dramatic material that demands energy, he can drive this home without fail, but more complex songwriting and framing, or material that demands a little more subtlety… well, Illuminations proved he was capable of pulling it off, but All That Echoes showed that if he didn’t have enough dramatic material, the songs could sound pretty but emotionally uninvolving. Which is the worst thing possible when you have a vocalist like Groban, whose voice is so clean and poised that if the songwriting drops into typical ‘power-ballad’ mold, it becomes very easy to tune out, if only because he’s made so many of them.

And thus it gets even more frustrating that Groban didn’t opt for more challenging or varied tracks from the musicals he chose. Take the duet he did with Kelly Clarkson from Phantom Of The Opera, ‘All I Ask Of You’, basically the poor man’s ‘Music Of The Night’, down to the chord progressions. I get why Groban chose the former – it’s more well-known, it plays more to a classical romantic archetype – but ‘Music Of The Night’ is a more interesting track lyrically and would have required Groban show off a more complex emotive presence. It also wouldn’t have involved Kelly Clarkson, who gives it her best shot and did do better than I expected, but her voice is too breathy and doesn’t quite have the stately presence a proper portrayal of Christina would need, especially considering Groban already got Audra McDonald for ‘If I Loved You’ from Carousel. Or take the Sondheim double feature of ‘Children Will Listen’ from Into The Woods and ‘Not While I’m Around’ from Sweeney Todd. I mean, I like both songs and the composition of the mashup is well-executed – but I can’t help but feel Groban would have been a much better fit for songs like ‘Agony’ or ‘Johanna’, force him to flex those dramatic muscles - hell, he does a lot better with the lesser known Sondheim track 'Finishing The Hat' from Sunday In The Park With George. And then there’s ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Miserables – and I’ll give Groban this, that song is brutally difficult, especially for one at his vocal range, and he does a damn great job with it… but on some level, his voice might have been a better fit for ‘Stars’ or ‘Who Am I?’. Sure, he covered ‘Empty Chairs And Empty Tables’ as well, but it’s on the bonus disc and should have been swapped in for the completely pointless and done-to-death ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ on this album.

So fine, Groban didn’t experiment as much as I hoped, instead picking a subsection of covers that most would deem pretty safe with his range and vocal style, did he at least do a solid job with the songs he chose? Honestly, it’s tough – he’s got the pipes, but it’s rare he steps up with the same level of organic emotive presence to match his musical predecessors. Hate to say it, but the original version by Gene Wilder of ‘Pure Imagination’ from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is pretty close to untouchable, even though Groban does give it a pretty solid effort. His gender-swapped version of 'What I Did For Love' is a valiant effort, but even despite how much I like that song, it doesn't favour his range. And then there’s ‘Anthem’ from Chess – and look, it’s impossible for me to be unbiased here, given it’s my favourite musical and the 2001 Complete Cast Album is pretty incredible… but man, this is probably Groban’s best shot at the song yet. And in other cases, he does rise to the occasion - I like Groban's more acoustic-touched approach to 'Try To Remember' from The Fantastiks and 'Old Devil Moon' from Finian's Rainbow, and his version of 'You'll Never Walk Alone' definitely plays to his strengths. If anything, the earnestness of old Broadway tunes is a natural fit for Groban, and I'm a little baffled he doesn't choose to go a little deeper into that catalog - but then again, who aside from theater geeks will know those songs?

In other words, Stages by Josh Groban feels compromised to me. As I said, it's harmless, but it feels caught between Josh Groban wanting to play to his wider audience and go for deep cuts in Sondheim. And as such, he can't nearly go as dark or as edgy as the better material might allow because it might tarnish his pristine image, even though I know from the past he's capable of it. In other words, it's an analogous problem to All That Echoes, and at this point in Groban's career, there's less excuses for playing it safe, especially considering he has an audience that will buy everything he makes, so why not push the envelope a little more? As it is, this is a strong 6/10 from me and a recommendation if you're a fan of Josh Groban or musicals or you just want to argue about who did it better. But otherwise... eh, if you're curious, but Josh Groban seems to be falling into a holding pattern that gets less interesting with every release, and worries me. Eh, I still like the guy, but he can do more.

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