Monday, December 4, 2017

album review: 'the good parts' by andy grammer

So for some bizarre reason my most viewed video at this point is my Top Ten Best Hit Songs of 2015 - and to be honest, I'm not really a fan of that video. There are gratuitous editing mistakes that make cringe every time I go back to it, but I guess controversy sells, because there were some eclectic and loaded picks on that list - and while my #1 choice triggered the most controversy, one of the other entries was just as inflammatory: 'Honey, I'm Good' by Andy Grammer, a top ten hit that a lot of critics hated, especially for its cloying, tough-to-watch music video.

And yet I never did, and it's hard not to feel like a lot of people missed the point of that track, mostly because Grammer is a pop artist from a different time. If he had broken through in the 50s and 60s, I could imagine him being far more successful for his unabashed cheerfulness and sincerity, which our more cynical time tends to view as a mask or inauthentic, which they projected onto that song. Hell, I've said the same thing about many of the acts that hopped on the retro pop trend in the past few years... but I've heard Andy Grammer's albums, and it felt authentic and not a studio calculation, if a little over-earnest and corny. It makes sense when you hear that his father made a lot of music for children and was actually nominated for a Grammy in that category in 2005 - which also probably explains how Grammer got some traction opening for the Plain White T's, Natasha Bedingfield, and Colbie Caillat, basically some of the whitest, least-threatening artists in modern music - hell, his list of inspirations include Jason Mraz, Jack Johnson, Coldplay, OneRepublic and The Fray! Now his first album in 2011 actually did have a single that hit the bottom half of the Hot 100, but it was his second album Magazines & Novels that really took off, because after a failed single cowritten with a member of AJR he released 'Honey, I'm Good' and broke the top 10. And yet even in 2015 I'm not sure if Andy Grammer could have sustained a longer career there - he was defiantly uncool, and his follow-up single over a year later was 'Fresh Eyes', a song I mostly liked but didn't love... and yet was intended as a charity single so don't we all feel bad now. And thus I was kind of worried that it took over a year for the new album to drop, and now only in December. Not a good sign coming from his label... but on the other hand there's a song from LunchMoney Lewis on this, I can't get too mad at it, so how did The Good Parts turn out?

Look folks, I'm a little at a loss for this one. For one, as much as I had praised 'Honey I'm Good' and defended Andy Grammer, all of that was conditional on the songs actually being there to back him up, and with The Good Parts, it became a hell of a lot harder for me to say that. But it's also the sort of record that I rarely ever cover on my show, where I'd be inclined to make a Hoodie Allen comparison for as shamelessly polished as this is, except that I get the impression that the audience that'd love this would probably consider that way too 'edgy' - maybe the most recent Train record would be a better parallel. In short, The Good Parts is a record that at its best builds its charm off of guileless earnestness, and at worst can tread into cloying territory that has me looking for the exits.

And that needs to be stressed right out of the gate: if you're looking for a pop star who is bringing nuance or subtlety to the table, despite his slightly more low-key delivery this time around Andy Grammer is not your guy. And on previous records this wasn't really an issue: he doesn't exactly need a lot of dimension to be charming or at the very least a likable presence. But the problem with an approach like this is that if there are notes of ambiguity not handled well, it can strike a sour note, and that happens a fair bit more than it should on this album. Take the title track, where Grammer wants to know all the little insecurities and weaknesses of his partner so he can see the whole picture and love her beyond the mask she puts forward - not exactly a bad intention, but his language is so brusque in the opening verse that it doesn't really take into consideration any nuance, that revealing that sort of thing can be difficult or require patience. Or take 'Workin On It', a song about people getting over their vices to be better... which then frames a girl sleeping around as a vice and it goes right up to the line of slut-shaming with all of the best of intentions. Hell, the more you listen through this record the more you get the impression that Grammer's doesn't really grasp elements of the world that fall outside of his clearly delineated worldview - or from songs like 'Civil War' or the hookup he falls into on 'This Ain't Love', even his own human vices which he actively wants to banish. But on the flipside, then you get the absolute worst track 'Grown Ass Man Child', which at first seemed to be a parody of swaggering, meat-headed machismo as childish... and then you listen to the second verse where Grammer emphasizes his 'maturity' and you get the horrifying feeling that he's playing it straight. And sometimes it's just a wonky choice of language, like how parts of 'Spaceship' are coached through hip-hop drug cooking language when it's about his as-of-then unborn daughter, which he later serenades on 'Always' which aside from cribbing chunks of its melody from 'Thinking Out Loud' uses language that feels entirely inappropriate for that sort of relationship! And what's stunning is that you can tell he's not intending to be subversive or adding nuance - again, tons of sincerity here - and it just comes off awkward at best and awful at worst!

Now that's not saying there aren't moments that have some charm: 'Fresh Eyes' hasn't really grown on me but it is one of the best hooks here courtesy of Grammer underplaying, '85' is a scold against materialism but at least it has momentum, and while his closing collaboration with LunchMoney Lewis is painfully simplistic, it's basically harmless. But that leads to the production, where harmless is arguably the most flattering descriptor I could use here. Going back to 'Honey I'm Good', one reason the song connected was that the old-fashioned idea was played with old-fashioned compositional sensibilities - and that's definitely not the case here. Instead Grammer has sought to modernize a lot of the tones with acoustic guitars, piano and organ, and beats that range from a tropical bounce to more trap-flavoured skitters and Chainsmokers-inspired drops, the latter of which gets particularly obnoxious with the chiptune elements on 'Grown Ass Man Child'. And while this could conceivably be a good idea, we immediately run into the issue how so few of these songs contain a prominent melodic progression outside of the vocal line, with brittle acoustic grooves and thicker percussion tending to overpower it, with the only real saving grace being basslines that tend to be more developed than you'd expect. And none of it has much texture or bite or unique character, all with the sort of pristine polish and closeness to the front of the mix that betrays any sense of depth or subtlety - ultimately it just feels kind of flimsy in a late-period Maroon 5-vein, which really isn't a great fix for Grammer's slightly more nasal tone that could use more texture. Now when this record builds some momentum, it can get around this - the rubbery bounce behind '85' definitely helps, as does the slightly faded keys playing off the more dense percussion on 'Workin On It' - but more often that not that's yet another dimension that was sacrificed here.

So as a whole... look, I'll freely admit this is targeted at a very different pop audience than where I fall personally - probably a demographic that's a little more settled or conservative or risk-averse than than mine - and as I've said from the beginning, if the writing and tunes were good, that was fine. The problem is that they aren't and Andy Grammer's earnest wholesomeness can start to curdle when confronted with the necessary reality of human emotions and failings, and that can make his lack of dimensionality tougher to stomach. And when you don't have those stronger moments to make up for the sheer grating awfulness that is 'Grown Ass Man Child'... I'm sorry, I'm giving this a strong 4/10 and I can't really recommend it. Maybe if you find acts like Hoodie Allen or Maroon 5 too 'edgy' or Ed Sheeran or Ben Rector too rootsy or challenging you'd like this... but if that's the case, we'll have very different definitions on what we consider quality music. For everyone else, you can skip it.

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