Monday, December 14, 2015

album review: 'chaos and the calm' by james bay

So while we're on the subject of Grammy nominations, let's discuss a record that I'm certain some of you are baffled that I didn't tackle nine months ago - because on the surface, the pitch for it would be right up my alley. And frankly, the more I think about it, the more I'm surprised I didn't discuss the debut album from James Bay, English singer-songwriter who drenched his recordings in a blend of Nashville Americana and soul and English folk. He didn't exactly make a critical splash, but he quickly established himself as a charting success, especially in the U.K.

And believe it or not, but I've actually talked about this liquid-voiced singer before, on Billboard BREAKDOWN. More specifically, on the list of acts who were charting hits in Canada, but hadn't yet broken through in the U.S., and in this case it was easy to see why. Up here, we never really lost a workable rock scene, and that meant that indie folk developed a sizeable foothold up here. But really, James Bay's appeal is much simpler than even that: if you were looking for an acoustic singer-songwriter that played to a similar sound as Ed Sheeran but pushed the folk, country and rock sides more than pop, hip-hop, or R&B, James Bay was the artist you wanted. And yet for as much as he was very listenable, he's never really been an artist I've been inclined to explore in detail. Maybe I wasn't wild about how polished his sound seemed, maybe I wasn't as moved by his songwriting as so many others were, but until now, I hadn't really cared to dig deeper.

But apparently the Grammys disagreed, because James Bay is now up for three awards, mostly in the rock category plus Best New Artist. And frankly, I'd hesitate to say he's the frontrunner for any of the categories, either by popular consensus or my own preferences. But to be fair, he's also nominated for Best Rock Album and I haven't covered this record in detail yet - and at the very least, he should be better than Muse or Slipknot, right?

Well, here's the thing: I've given this album a lot of listens, and the primary emotion I get whenever I go through it isn't so much happiness or anger or melancholy but confusion. And while I'd be very tempted to write this record off as a fairly lightweight wannabe halfway between Ed Sheeran and Frank Turner and unable to find a distinctive balance between them, there are seeds of a good idea here and I'm not quite certain why they didn't come together more. As a whole, I get the feeling I should like this album more, but the more I go through it the more it just feels kind of formless and a bit generic, not really evolving beyond the basics.

And to start we really need to go into the instrumentation and production, most notably how this record lacks a lot of the texture you'd normally hope to find in folk rock, even when it guns for the mainstream. Yeah, the guitar lines are pretty liquid and likeable, especially when paired with a decent underlying groove to build to a crescendo like on 'Hold Back The River' or 'Incomplete' or the more explosive swell of 'Scars' or 'Collide'. Hell, when this record takes tentative steps towards a bluesier side, especially on tracks like 'When We Were On Fire', it actually comes across pretty well, especially with the sparse percussion, organ, and decent acoustic momentum, with hints of piano or the aching strings on 'Move Together' to accent the melody. Hell, outside of a few guitar tones that don't really come together - the most notable is the blaring tone on the verses of 'Best Fake Smile' - most of this record is generally pretty pleasant... and yet on a compositional basis, it doesn't really stand out. Part of this is the production blasting any element of grit or texture away in order to better gun for a pop audience, but a larger part of it is that the comparison points to Ed Sheeran's x are pretty damn stark, just focusing more on folk rock than any of the hip-hop or grime elements that kept that instrumentation more interesting. And then there are songs like 'Craving' and especially 'Get Out While You Can' that might as well be modern Frank Turner songs, just far less impressive or willing to rock with brazen energy or texture.

And part of that comes through in James Bay himself - and honestly, I'm kind of conflicted about the guy. Part of the issue is that while he can be expressive, I'm not sure he's quite certain what genre of folk rock he fits into best. He's got the willowy gentleness that works for the softer side, but he seems much more interested in a more visceral or intense delivery that I like, but am not entirely convinced he can pull off. Part of this is that he'll abruptly shift to falsetto mid-chorus like on 'Craving' and it can feel out of place, and part of it is that he's easily more raw than any of his instrumentation which can be jarring. But the biggest issue is that his vocal production feels thin against his instrumentation, where only a few songs give him a thicker backing choir to really stand out. 

And that unfortunately extends to the lyrics... and look, for most of this album, the writing isn't so much bad as it is lacking in detail. And that can work if you're playing in broad archetypes or are gunning for populism, but it also means that Bay's sentiments about playing to intimate relationships with complicated framing can feel bare-bones. The song with the most lyrical imagination is easily 'Hold Back The River', probably the best track here as he is forced to realize how time can cause a relationship to decay, with 'Scars' being a close second as he tries to sustain something long distance. And hell, I'll give him credit for 'Incomplete', the only real love ballad on the record as he and his partner accept each other's flaws. But beyond that, there's an awkwardness in lyrical tone on this album that really sours me on a fair few songs, and it shows up most in the breakup songs. I get 'Let It Go' trying to finally end a relationship that has sputtered out, but rattling through as many 'it's not you, it's me' cliches along the way against instrumentation that's way too gentle to really work feels disingenuous, especially when a few songs later on 'Move Together' or 'Collide' or 'When We Were On Fire' he's trying to leverage relationship conflict or inevitable breakup into something that might last longer. I respect the intent, but the execution needs work - which I'd also say for 'Best Fake Smile', which tries to focus on encouraging a girl to follow her dreams and she doesn't have to put up with a crappy waitress job where she's expected to play nice... hate to say it, dude, but people have to eat. Or take the two songs where James Bay is yearning for a relationship, 'If You Ever Want To Be In Love', a song about trying to reignite an old flame, or 'Need The Sun To Break' where he's hoping this love will bring him inner peace - they aren't bad tracks, but they feel awfully timid and lacking in deeper nuance, especially when Marianas Trench already did the former with far more detail and punch on 'Wildfire' this year.

So in the end... again, I wanted to like this record, but there's honestly a lot less here than I was expecting, even for a debut. James Bay might have some promise as a frontman, but the by-the-numbers production and instrumentation imitating other acts don't help him, and neither do lyrics that never rise to enough nuance to really stick with me. Part of this is bad timing - when you have other acts that approach similar broad strokes and do it better, that's hard to avoid - but even without them I'm not all that impressed by this. For me, it's a 6/10 and only recommended if you're looking for a more folk pop-friendly act that's lighter than Frank Turner and more fluid and restrained than Ed Sheeran's recent genre bending. Otherwise... honestly, you're not missing much.

1 comment:

  1. Man,I was hoping you would like this more.But whatever.Your opinion is your opinion.