Monday, May 14, 2018

album review: 'voicenotes' by charlie puth

So the last time I talked about Charlie Puth, it did not go well in the slightest. That review of Nine Track Mind was a collaborative review with Jon over at ARTV, and to say we tore into that record would be underselling it. The vocal delivery was utterly unconvincing, the production was painfully flimsy, and the less we say about the underweight, milquetoast lyrics on that project, the better. And yet what caught me off-guard was how it was not just Jon and I calling that record out - indeed, the negative critical reception for Nine Track Mind was among the harshest I had ever seen, the sort of thorough panning that mainstream music critics rarely ever deliver.

And yet maybe Charlie Puth took some of that criticism to heart, and from the lead-off single 'Attention' I started to get the impression that Voicenotes might be a very different animal, especially when Puth described his primary influences to be late 80s R&B, New Edition and new jack swing. And if you had told me this two years ago I would have laughed in your face - come on, the guy who wrote 'let's Marvin Gaye and get it on' with Meghan Trainor is calling back to this era of R&B - but again, 'Attention' did have that groove. And when you factor in rumors suggesting that Nine Track Mind was pushed in a different direction than what Puth wanted towards a much cleaner pop sound... well, it would make sense, but I wanted hard evidence before I could buy into it completely. So alright, what did we get on Voicenotes?

So here's the thing: Voicenotes is indeed a significant improvement from Nine Track Mind in pretty much every way - the choice of sounds and styles are more distinct and showcase a pop artist who could have real potential, tastefully updating older sounds for a modern audience and with some of the best hooks he's ever assembled. That said, I fully acknowledge at least part of my appreciation is rooted in nostalgia for some of the sounds Puth is resurrecting, and that he's got a ways to go before he truly wins me over.

And let's start with the greatest weak point on the record: Puth himself. I'll admit I've never really been fond of his vocal tone, but Voicenotes allows him to add layers of darker complexity on tracks like 'Attention' and 'Done For Me' with Kehlani, and when his multitracking is on point, he's capable of singing opposite Boyz II Men on 'If You Leave Me Now', which interpolates an old Chicago song into something that's genuinely great. He doesn't exactly have the range or vocal texture to bring in much smolder, though, and his choice to spend more time with his thin falsetto is not a great lane for him, especially when he tries to interject a vibrato for more texture and it feels both forced and unnecessary.

Granted, I'm not surprised he's trying to push his voice range into more difficult territory, and this ties into the compositions and production - and I'm going to give Puth points right out of the gate for mostly sticking to his plan to embrace more groove-driven R&B tones, with swaggering basslines, glistening keyboards, and acoustic tones that are more tinny than they should be. But that's because Puth once again produced the entire album himself, with less live instrumentation than you might expect - seriously, even that bass groove on 'Attention' was created with presets, which might explain why a fair few of these progressions especially in the percussion feel stiffer than they probably should. And while I get that Puth probably had to make this on a shoestring budget given how badly Nine Track Mind was panned, the computerized instruments do wind up feeling flatter than their organic counterparts, and Puth still has a bad habit of leaving his acoustic guitars devoid of warmth or texture. And yet it doesn't quite bother me as much this time around, mostly because of the eras where Puth is drawing more of his sound. The first I've referenced in late 80s R&B, and between that great choppy riff that opens 'The Way I Am', the synth bass of 'Done For Me', the talkbox and sharper synth groove of 'Slow It Down' and the acoustic guitar/keyboard balance of 'Somebody Told Me' are all really solid in this lane. But the other main stylistic influence for Puth is mid-to-late 90s boy band R&B - think the first two Backstreet Boys records - and between the wiry groove of 'L.A. Girls', how much 'Patient' sounds like 'All I Have To Give' crossed with 'Thinking Out Loud', and the fact that he literally got Boyz II Men for an a capella track - look, I'm not complaining because the grooves are tight and I appreciate that sound, but it is pretty blatant, down to the key changes on 'If You Leave Me Now' and 'Through It All'. Granted, when you compare it to slightly more modern grooves like 'BOY' and 'Empty Cups' I prefer the old school sound, but even on those tracks, Puth's commitment to melodic grooves is decidedly old school, there's not a desaturated trap banger here and I'm okay with that!

And I just wish that his songwriting was on the same level. Now again, to Puth's credit if we're playing in lightweight boy band territory I've got no issue with the deflecting hookups of 'Slow It Down' or the cheating confrontations of 'How Long' or 'Somebody Told Me' or even 'L.A. Girls', even if Puth can definitely come across as a little tactless. And while I'm still not convinced he can entirely sell the more angry or defiant tracks like 'The Way I Am' or 'Attention', they've got the attitude to click, especially when a few songs later Kehlani is more than his match slapping down his accusations of her cheating on 'Done For Me'. But to put it mildly, Puth is not a subtle songwriter and his bluntness can definitely lead to misfires. At the most inoffensive we get 'Patient' where he pleads for this girl to give him more time, or how he describes coming through struggles on 'Through It All' - not a lot of convincing detail about said struggles, but you know... struggles. What I had less patience for was a song like 'BOY', where he angrily questions an older woman who isn't really into a relationship with him by asserting that he is clearly giving her what she wants and was born in the 90s... dude, take it from me, when you call attention to your age with respect to hers, you're not helping - and following it while talking about dating an insatiable younger girl doesn't help you either! And then there's 'Change', a duet with one of Puth's longtime heroes singer-songwriter James Taylor, and it plays in schmaltzy 'let's all get along' territory - again, it's kind of harmless in a vacuum, but man it feels tactless right now, especially given it's Puth's only venture into this territory.

But as a whole, if there was a record to pull Puth out of his tailspin from Nine Track Mind, Voicenotes is definitely it - the grooves are sharper, the writing and performances are a little better, and with songs like 'Done For Me', 'If You Leave Me Now', 'Slow It Down' and 'Somebody Told Me', he got some decent pop/R&B songs, if a tad basic overall. I do worry we're not going to see any greater complexity or production quality outside of Puth's desktop, but baby steps, and this is going in the right direction. For me, this is a solid 6/10, definitely recommended for the fans, and not a bad pop record to hear otherwise - not great, but absolutely an improvement. And given how much radio seems to adore him... yeah, with some of these cuts I'll get on board, check it out.

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