Wednesday, April 6, 2016

album review: 'lukas graham' by lukas graham

I think I've said in the past that music from around the world landing on the US Hot 100 is basically a crapshoot. It happens occasionally, but with the exception of huge established acts from Canada like Drake or Justin Bieber or the UK in Adele, it tends to be very rare that you get a smash hit. And that becomes especially true when you look at the indie scene, as most acts barely have the money to promote themselves within their own country, let alone internationally. However, it becomes a little more likely when you get an act that gets traction stateside and major labels look to hop on the trend and flesh out their respective rosters with whoever they can find. And obviously they're going to opt for Americans first - paradoxically then taking them on international tours before trying to break into the US market - but sometimes they get a little desperate or they find an act that's been quietly doing well and prime the pump for a real push.

So when 'Stressed Out' by twenty one pilots got big, I knew it was only a matter of time before indie pop-leaning acts with borderline emo lyrics would start to creep towards the mainstream pop music to provide the 'smarter' counterbalance to Justin Bieber's whiny narcissism - hence we have Lukas Graham. Now they released a self-titled debut in their native Denmark back in 2012 that got huge reception there... and pretty much nowhere else. And while I wouldn't say I was blown away by it - the writing definitely showed the signs of being a debut, the pop soul blend seemed a little too polished for my taste - it did catch the attention of Warner Bros, which put some backing behind their second self-titled album, otherwise known as the 'blue album', where '7 Years' actually wasn't the lead-off single. It was the third single from that sophomore release... and then thanks partially to the success of twenty one pilots opening the way, the song is now absolutely huge and everywhere, propelling Lukas Graham into the spotlight and Warner Bros to desperately repackage an album for mainstream consumption. So on that promising note, how's the album?

Honestly, a bit of a weird listen. And while it's not helped by a few songs from a previous release jammed into the middle of the record, the self-titled Lukas Graham record is a peculiar beast in modern pop, one that doesn't really have an exact comparison beyond an odd mishmash of twenty one pilots, Hebrews-era Say Anything, and maybe a bit of Ryan Tedder's production style to boot. Overwritten lyrics, an incredibly earnest vocalist, and production that's far too smooth polished for its own good. I'm not prepared to call it bad, but it does strike me as a release that shows a band not quite ready for the mainstream spotlight - or one that might not belong in the mainstream to begin with.

I should explain, and the best place to start is the production and instrumentation. Now on the surface much of this album feels very analogous to trends in modern pop - gleaming keys and synths, punchy percussion, a smooth enough cushion of reverb to buoy the occasional strings - but there are a few subtleties that deserve attention. For one, the nearly ubiquitous trap hi-hats in the percussion are nowhere to be seen, with many of the grooves coasting off of a bass guitar desperately needing more texture to really hit for me. In fact, the keyboard melodies are nearly always at the forefront, clean and glistening to really stick in the brain, including an organ tone on 'What Happened To Perfect' that might be one of the brightest I've heard in a while. And that trend definitely carries over into the composition: tracks like 'Drunk In The Morning' and 'Don't You Worry 'Bout Me' or 'Strip No More' have these very jaunty, upbeat melodies that recall vintage pop, or maybe musical theater, the latter which definitely comes across in production that rarely ever brings out real bite or impact. I mentioned Ryan Tedder before, and that windswept, very polished sound definitely saturates this record - and the bizarre thing is that when this record does bring in modern vocal production, it doesn't fit nearly as well. Between the high-pitched and thin backing vocals on 'Take The World By Storm' or the distorted warbling on 'You're Not There' - otherwise pretty damn solid songs - or the child choir on the chorus of 'Mama Said', you get the feeling that many of these tracks are a tad sanitized and too cutesy for their own good. There is bombast - some of the horns do connect, I liked the gospel touches on 'Funeral', and when the strings can build to soaring power like on '7 Years' it's got real power - but so many of these textures feel thin and lacking in more body.

And this definitely doesn't help our frontman, Lukas Graham Forchhammer. Don't get me wrong, his voice has power and he's got enough swagger and charisma to keep me interested in his odd lyrical flows, but between the many points where he really pushes his range and the vocal production that doesn't always let the deeper notes in his voice come through, he can get a little shrill at points. What's more noticeable is that despite how clear his tone is, I keep getting the feeling that this record is missing the thicker underbelly or grit that might come with actually having a guitarist, or at the very least synths with more of an edge. As it is, much of his delivery can come across as a little broad - good for the stage, maybe, but not quite having the emotive subtlety to hit quieter or darker notes.

And this definitely comes through in the writing and themes, the most notable coming threefold: Lukas Graham is torn up by the loss of his father - who he constantly calls his 'daddy', which feels more juvenile than it should - but it has led to the inspiration to find success, and he's concerned about losing touch with his roots or with his own legacy going forward. You get all three notes playing through '7 Years', where I'd argue despite some clumsiness - and not quite hitting the classic status that Alan Jackson found with 'Remember When', which tackled similar subject matter - it taps into that nervous anticipation quite well. And when this record can tap more deeply into that drama, like on the thrill of 'Take The World By Storm' or the grief of 'You're Not There', it tends to do well. Hell, even though the sequencing doesn't flatter it, I actually liked 'Better Than Yourself (Criminal Mind Pt. 2)', where he writes about a friend in jail and trying to reconcile his friendship with the implied crime that was committed and how it nearly cost his friend his life and definitely his freedom. But that confidence which can be an asset can also get obnoxious, most notably on 'Drunk In The Morning', where he doesn't even know which girl he drunk-dialed for a hookup and then proceeds to talk about both the other girls he was after and how he's only ever going to call after two - classy, dude. Or take 'Don't You Worry 'Bout Me' - I get the sentiment of trying to reassure a friend that he's on track with his life, but you'd think he'd at least return to including his friend in the conversation instead of bragging. Or take 'Strip No More', a bit of a joke song where he falls for a stripper who decided to move on... and yet when he ends the song saying she's not going to get tipped, it's clear to Lukas Graham's mind that he still considers her a stripper, which is right up to the point of obnoxious. And while I know it's not entirely the band's fault, the sequencing on this record is pretty bad, most notably the mood whiplash across the midsection, which does nothing for the overall vibe. But even at the very end, where on 'You're Not There' he says he'll never be able to fully get over his father's death, they then end the album with 'Funeral', where he expects drinks and celebration when he finally passes. It's a weird double standard and it belies a cockiness that I'm not sure this record can pull off, especially in the instrumentation.

But in the end... man, this is a weird album to evaluate. On the one hand I like the focus on melody, the lyrical cadences lead to some strong hooks, and there is distinct personality here... but on the other hand it feels overly broad in presentation and writing and I keep wishing for more instrumental muscle to match our frontman. It reminds me more than anything of a middling stage musical soundtrack - a lot of glitz and personality, but lacking the subtlety and texture to really grab me more deeply. As it is, I'm feeling a 6/10 and a recommendation, but '7 Years' really is the best track here. If you like that, the record's worth a listen, but otherwise I'll be waiting to see age and time can bring out the edge in the production to match some of the lyrics. I think it could be there... just not yet.

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