Monday, March 26, 2018

album review: 'staying at tamara's' by george ezra

And now we've arrived at the second primarily acoustic singer-songwriter who has somehow sold over a million copies around the world based off a single hit that seemed to peak a fair bit later than the actual album did... and yet the more I think about it, George Ezra is a very different sort of artist than Vance Joy, even despite playing with what might seem like a similar genre and sound. For one, George Ezra actually had some rich baritone in his vocal timbre and knew his way around lyrics that could back up their metaphors and loose sense of imagery, but that actually ties to something peculiar about Ezra's presentation: roughness. And I'm not talking about the sort of edge you typically got out of adult-alternative acts that trended in the 90s - with some of the touches of blues, firmer low-end grooves, and slightly more earthy, haggard feel overall, many pinpointed Ezra's influences as much older, calling back to the folk singer-songwriters of the 60s or early 70s that were just adjacent to the mainstream in production if not the songwriting. And yes, some of this affection is linked to how much 'Budapest' has become a karaoke staple for me, but even if the writing hadn't quite gotten there yet George Ezra was at least a more compelling presence behind the microphone...

But like the singer-songwriters of the day, the music media would aim to frame the conversation as competitive, and I've seen a lot of comparisons to Ed Sheeran in the buzz leading up to this release, a sophomore record four years later... and not one that I found had much merit, at least coming off of Ezra's debut. As much as I might hope for otherwise, Ed Sheeran trends more towards pop and R&B than blues or soul or rock, which looked like a more natural landing point for George Ezra - although I did have the twinge of worry that given how well Ed Sheeran and those seeking to rip him off have done, it wouldn't be a far stretch to nudge George Ezra in that direction, regardless of whether that'd fit his style or presentation. So okay, what did we get on Staying At Tamara's?

Honestly, the more listens I gave this record, the more I was stunned this took four years to put together, mostly because it feels like a much more lightweight and mainstream-accessible version of what George Ezra had put out in the past. I wouldn't even say the Ed Sheeran comparison was apt in comparison to the loose, lightweight tones you'd find on a Hootie & The Blowfish record, or the questionably indie pop tones you'd get from an artist like Ben Lee or even Jason Mraz before his material turned to lifeless junk at the end of the decade. Granted, Ezra tends to eschew how weightless and derivative most of that subgenre is by presentation alone, which means I do tend to like this for what it is, but beyond that this is a pretty thin record, and not really one that plays to his strengths.

So let's start by focusing on those strengths, and the biggest one here is George Ezra himself. I'll say it, the guy has a tremendous voice, the sort of full and organic baritone that can slip towards a higher register when he needs it but is more than capable of adding gravitas and presence simply through his world-weary but yearning delivery. But the tricky thing when you have a voice like that is proper positioning - not with regards to production, most of which is perfectly fine if a little over-polished on this project, but genre and tone. It's one reason slightly left-of-center, full-bodied acoustic folk and blue-eyed soul worked on his debut, it allowed his shaggier approach to a loose groove feel so damn organic and charming - hell, if you're looking for a guy who could command the more lush soundscapes of a Father John Misty or the smokier, more ethereal folk of Grizzly Bear, it'd be George Ezra. So a pivot towards brighter, more aggressively chipper pop folk material might fit better in the mainstream, but to me it was more reminiscent of the brighter horn-inflected tones pushed in the very early 70s on more organic artists and how it could feel a little busy and overdone, especially if said choices were made at the expense of good basslines and whatever edge Ezra did have. Oh, don't get me wrong, the warm acoustic tones were solid on tunes like 'Pretty Shining People' or the washed out, ramshackle flutters of 'Shotgun', and when the firmer bass comes up on tunes like 'Get Away' it shows that Ezra can bring some infectious bounce to the tune. And put him on ballads like the waltz 'All My Love' and or the midtempo 'Hold My Girl' and he's certainly capable of selling them far better than someone like James Arthur or even James Bay, that's hard to deny. But in between those you get the more spare 'Sugarcoat' with touches of organ and flutters of guitar and it's hard to escape the feeling that this is a more interesting lane, especially when he leans into the more layered, smoldering melancholy of 'Saviour' with First Aid Kit - easily the best song here - or the mists of 'The Beautiful Dream'. And look, it's not like the richer horn pickups on songs like 'Don't Matter Now' or 'Get Away' are bad - I'd certainly take it over whatever the hell Vance Joy tried - but if the groove isn't there to support them, it can feel blaring and stiff.

Granted, this is where we have to talk about the content, and while I'm not really pleased why songs like 'Paradise' and 'Don't Matter Now' were pushed as singles - the latter is easily the worst song here as it seems a little clueless in its escapism that not everybody can escape the bad man back home running things, which you mentioned for no decent reason - but the unfortunate truth is that they represent more of the content than they don't. Really, this record defaults towards one of two subgenres, with very few exceptions: pretty straightforward, earnest and forgiving love songs; and tracks that are craving the head rush of travelling adventure without all that much detail. Now neither of these subgenres of songs are bad: I liked the chronic overthinking playing out on 'Pretty Shining People', and while the detail on 'Shotgun' can feel dangerously close to a checklist, it has momentum and is pretty infectious. And when it comes to love songs, the innocuous details on 'Sugarcoat' and the abstraction of 'The Beautiful Dream' play quite well, with 'All My Love' feeling a tad basic but in the right ballpark. But then you account some word choices that just feel clumsy: 'Paradise' has the line 'if it feels like paradise running through your bloody veins' and it comes across a little too detailed, or 'Only Human' where he makes it sound remarkably easy to brush aside screwups as being 'only human', and while it's nowhere as obnoxious as when Rag'n'Bone Man did it, it falls in the same territory. But then you have 'Saviour' as the big exception to the formula, speaking to an ex where he wants to revive the relationship, but it's telling here that he doesn't quite grasp why what he gave wasn't enough for her, that he couldn't be her savior, and leaving his wants unanswered helps the overall mystique of the track, especially with First Aid Kit contributing against his possible projection. 

But overall, just like with Vance Joy there's a certain pointlessness to covering a silent majority pop folk artist like George Ezra - hell, probably even moreso with him, given that his vocal talents will have hooked the larger audience so as long as there's no serious missteps he'll be fine. And that's mostly true with Staying At Tamara's, it's a decent accessible record with poor single choices and a few very respectable deep cuts. And if you're looking for a lightweight, chipper summer record you could certainly do a lot worse than this, so for me it's a 6/10 and a recommendation for that, but otherwise it's not really essential. It's not better than his debut, but it's enjoyable enough all the same - if and when he swivels to making more challenging material as a songwriter, that's when he'll get a lot more interesting, but until then... hey, you take what you can get.

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