As everybody knows, this is American Idol week on the Hot 100. Before last year, this would have meant that whatever lamentable ballad had been foisted on the winner would debut at number one, and that yet another version of the same ballad sung by the runner-up would debut somewhere further down the chart. Last year, however, Idol cut a deal with iTunes that resulted in numerous performances, by the winner and the losers, being made available for a limited time immediately after the finale. Last year, this gave David Cook 11 Hot 100 debuts in one week. This year, with the competition a little closer, winner Kris Allen and runner-up Adam Lambert split the prize, with five debuts for Allen and four for Lambert, and not a single one landing in the top ten.
Rather than bore you and/or drive myself crazy writing separate reviews for each entry, I thought it best to handle them in a bunch, and then get on with the rest of this week’s debuts, of which there are eight, including two from another television/iTunes goldmine, Glee. I should also mention that I didn’t watch American Idol this season, and have heard nothing from these guys until now, so my perspective is fresh, or at least as fresh as someone with my jaundiced viewpoint of Idol to begin with can be.
No Boundaries #11
Ain’t No Sunshine #37
Falling Slowly #94
Mad World #19
A Change Is Gonna Come #56
No Boundaries #72
First things first: Adam Lambert was robbed. Kris Allen is a decent singer, but he evinces precious little personality, and, like too many Idol singers, he often seems to be unsure what the songs he performs are about. Hence his version of “Ain’t No Sunshine”, which is OK until he gets to the repeated “I knows”. He treats them as something to be gotten over with, instead of what they are: the emotional center of the song. His one advantage (which also happens to be one of Lambert’s weaknesses), is that he doesn’t oversing. This makes his performances of “Falling Slowly” and “Heartless” more than bearable, even with their weak arrangements. It’s also worth pointing out that though Allen’s version of Heartless is nowhere near as good as the original, it’s miles better than The Fray’s, and proves conclusively that it’s a great song. The idea of it becoming a standard seems far fetched to me, though—the lyrics are too idiosyncratic, tuned to West’s oversized ego and personality. Allen sounds a little silly singing them.
As for Lambert, he has the better voice, the sharper sensibility, and more of that rock and roll attitude. Which means he oversings, overplays his hand at times, picks more pretentious material, and depends too much on his personality to get his songs over. But he can sing, and does a far better job with the awful “No Boundaries” than Allen does. His biggest weakness is a tendency to mistake slurring his words together for being soulful, as if every line were just another opportunity to lay on some melisma. This doesn’t ruin his version of “A Change Is Gonna Come”, but it makes the song mean less than it might, even with the amazing falsetto he puts on at the end.
In defense of both, the Idol producers, as usual, have come up with some of the most deathless arrangements in history (though the Sade-like backing on “Heartless” is nice). Simon Cowell is always accusing singers of sounding Karaoke. Has he listened to the band lately?
Glee Cast—Don’t Stop Believin’
The first forty seconds or so, where Journey meets Steve Reich in a high school choir room, are brilliant. Once the band enters, though, it becomes just another damn cover of that same damn Journey song. Here’s hoping that once the series—I haven’t seen it, but it sounds like High School Musical for fans of Election—goes into regular rotation, the producers will pay more attention to the first forty seconds here than the remaining three minutes. Bad songs brilliantly arranged; that would be a first for television, wouldn’t it?
Linkin Park—New Divide
Oddly enough, Linkin Park’s apocalyptic metaphors and musical bombast make more sense when they’re singing about broken relationships than they do when they’re singing about actual apocalypse. They’re a perfect match for a certain brand of teenage emotional self-seriousness, and I suppose they deserve respect for so effectively pushing those buttons. But facts are facts: these guys haven’t been teenagers for over a decade, their music is boring, and, as in most apocalyptic scenarios, there are some buttons that should never be pushed.
I have no idea what this song is supposed to be about, and neither does Cook. At least there’s nothing about his singing that suggests he does. Don’t blame him for that, though. Considering the quality of the song, I’ll bet he doesn’t want to know.
Rob Thomas—Her Diamonds
This record revolves around an interesting concept: a guy watching his girl cry and having no idea what to do to help her. Except the focus is all on how that makes Thomas feel, the music bears no relation to the lyrics, and when Thomas sings that everything will be fine if she finds some delight you can’t help but assume he thinks he’s the one to provide it. Then the female background vocals come in, and you realize why the girl is crying: she’s just discovered that the guy she’s living with is actually Carly Simon.
Charice—Note To God
This fifteen year-old definitely has a voice—for sheer volume her final note has to be heard to be believed. But if I wrote a note to God, it would consist of a single, simple message: Make it stop, make it stop, make it stop.
Black Eyed Peas—Imma Be
Maura over at Idolator has predicted that this will be the jam of the summer, but I have my doubts. More likely it will be the point where all the fans who have been enjoying the ride since Elephunk jump off the bus. “Boom Boom Pow” could be thought of as a novelty record, with club shout-outs that anyone could yell along to, but this represents a deeper step into the digital minimalism wilderness, and as amazing as some of it sounds, I have a feeling a lot of people won’t care to follow along (I barely care to follow along myself). This didn’t get the radio build up “Boom Boom Pow” did, so its relatively low debut may not mean much, but if the whole album sounds like this, the Peas may discover they’ve invested a little too much faith in the willingness of their fans to follow them anywhere.
I’m assuming this made it onto the charts on sales, because I can guarantee you no radio station in the country would dare play it. It’s as if Eminem had found a way to set Naked Lunch to music, only without the relative comfort of knowing it’s an opium-induced fantasy. The only reassuring thing about this record is the emotional distance the music maintains. It’s the only song from Relapse I’ve heard where the lightness of the beats makes sense—set these lyrics to music that matched and it would be almost impossible to listen to. I just wish I could be assured that it’s selling for its quality, and not just as a novelty.
If the opening of their cover of “Don’t Stop Believin’” demonstrates what can be done right by a vocal group, even with a bad song, this demonstrates everything that can be done wrong with a great one. The musical style may be different, but in approach this is barely a half step away from the lamest folk groups of the early sixties or Sing Along With Mitch. I know this is partly intended as satire, but I’m not sure that’s how most of the audience is taking it, and I fear endless follow-ups. And if, as some believe, Amy Winehouse is already minstrelsy, what the hell is this?