My lovely wife is a musical theatre connoisseur, and she recently gave me the soundtrack to Anything Goes (1934, although the version she gave me was the 1962 revival) to listen to. I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit, and just this morning finished listening to it all the way through. The lyrics by Cole Porter are quite clever–I must say that nothing I’ve heard thus far in my life can top Stephen Schwartz in Wicked, but I’ve been impressed with the lyrics in this show, especially in the songs “You’re The Top” and “Anything Goes.” And I’ve enjoyed the music as well. Musical theatre has never been one of my favorite styles of music; although I’m always up for seeing a good musical, I wouldn’t normally listen to a soundtrack on its own. But, when I gave Eleanor Coldplay’s LeftRightLeftRightLeft album and was looking for something of hers to listen to, I thought I’d take a musical to see what I could glean from the style.

I find that the music for Anything Goes is a little more interesting to me than “typical” musical theatre style. (Eleanor and I also listened to excerpts from Kiss Me, Kate recently, which is another Cole Porter musical from 14 years later, and we were both much less impressed.) The orchestra that it uses is an intriguing one: mostly piano, brass (in a big band sort of style), and drums/percussion, with only the occasional woodwind for color and a banjo (?!) just for good measure–hardly any strings at all. I have to give Mr. Porter props for that; I don’t think I could sacrifice strings in writing a musical, no matter how hard I tried. But I generally like the way the orchestra is used (even the banjo), although the piano parts can be a little hackneyed and most of its intros sound the same.

In listening to this musical, I also tried to deduce what musical elements make up the “musical theatre sound.” Certainly the orchestration (primarily brass and piano) has something to do with it. As far as the harmonies go, they tend towards a pop-jazz style, using lots of extended chords (sevenths, ninths, etc. without getting too crazy or dissonant), secondary dominants and active, mobile bass lines based around the tonic and fifth (C – G – C – G – C – G – C G A B – C etc.). And melodies and harmonies alike are in love with the sixth (e.g. the note A in C major)–somehow the sixth as a melody note is harmonious and “part of the chord” with the tonic triad in many songs (see, for example, the song “Heaven Hop” in Anything Goes). Apart from those, though, I’m not sure anything else jumps out at me, even though musical theatre is an almost instantly recognizable style.

What are your thoughts? What do you think of Anything Goes? Any technical or non-technical ideas about what makes something sound distinctly like a musical?

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06.08.2009

LeftRightLeftRightLeft, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:32 pm

It took me a while, but I finally downloaded Coldplay‘s new live album a few weeks ago. It’s called LeftRightLeftRightLeft, and can be downloaded for free here (they’re also giving away free copies at their shows; according to the band, it’s a “recession-busting” thank-you to their fans).

It’s awesome, of course, since it’s Coldplay (and my love for the band is well-documented). But the dynamic of a live album is an interesting one. Of course it’s fun to hear the crowd in the background, cheering and singing along; to hear Chris Martin’s occasional comments; to hear the live version of “Death Will Never Conquer,” featuring “the singing abilities of Mr. William Champion” (their drummer). But for the most part, the rest of the songs appear very much like their counterparts on the studio albums (mainly Viva La Vida and Prospekt’s March, plus “The Hardest Part” from X&Y and “Clocks” from A Rush Of Blood To The Head). And that makes me wonder how interesting most people find the live versions. Take for example “Viva La Vida.” Apart from beginning with the chorus’ background vocals, the song is practically identical to the studio version, complete with the recorded string tracks, except for the fact that the vocals are a little less polished. I realize that this was a huge single, the title track from their last main record, their current signature song, etc., and that people would probably revolt in outrage if it was played a different way. But I, for one, would be interested to hear how the band might arrange it if they didn’t have the string tracks. Could the electric guitar take over the rhythmic harmony parts, with a keyboard doing some of the midrange riffs during the verses? Do I really want to get an album to hear a live track that could almost be a studio track with added crowd noise? (I know it’s a free download, but I’m talking about the principle here…)

Most of the tracks fit this bill, including “Glass Of Water,” “42,” and “Clocks”–the main difference is slight differences or added flourishes in the vocals–and the tracks that are different are the ones that stand out. “Strawberry Swing,” perhaps the song I underestimated the most on Viva La Vida, is basically the same instrumentally, but Martin changes some of the lyrics slightly (and they make more of an emotional impact in their changed form). It was exciting, listening through LeftRightLeftRightLeft for the first time, to hear the different lyrics–”that wasn’t how it was on the last record!” “The Hardest Part” is also interesting–Martin performs it solo on piano, so although the melody and lyrics are basically the same, it has a different accompaniment (and is also made into a medley with the instrumental track “Postcards From Far Away”).

Of course, these thoughts haven’t kept me from listening to the album nonstop for a week or two. But it’s interesting to me that a band as musically genius as Coldplay would not only play songs live the same way they appear on the album, but also release a live record of songs as they appear on the album. What are your thoughts?

P.S. For some reason, over the past few days TLB has been absolutely deluged with spam (in the space of two or three days I’ve gotten as many spam comments as I’ve gotten legitimate comments over the entire history of the blog). In the process of vehemently deleting the spam comments, I also deleted a few legitimate comments, back to April 20th–including the first comment on the redesigned site, which was from Idhrendur. So, even though the comment itself no longer exists, I can still commemorate his great achievement here in this post. I’ve installed the Akismet plugin, which has eliminated all the spam thus far, so hopefully this won’t be a problem again. And if I deleted your comment–you should just leave another one!

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05.26.2009

One year ago, on this date and at this time, TLB was born! So raise a glass of your favorite wine or champagne and toast to your favorite listening blog!

As you can see, I finished the redesign just in time. All your favorite features are still here–subscriptions via RSS and email, the Amazon widget (although it looks a little funny right now), post tag categories–but it’s packaged in a brand-new look (and the Twitter widget is much fancier now). I’m loving the new digs at WordPress as well. I’ll be making some tweaks here and there, but for the most part, this is how TLB will look from now on. Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

And now, for the big announcement I promised two and a half weeks ago! Drum roll please….

I’m going to be recording a new pop music album!

That’s right folks, for the first time since the release of Following A Star in 2005, I will be writing and recording a new CD. I have a collection of new songs, and a few old songs I want to rerecord, that have been sitting around for a long time; and now that I have new (and much better) recording technology and a renewed passion, I’m gonna do it. I’ll be writing some new songs for it as well, and my goal is to release it by the end of this year.

And that’s not all! You, my loyal readers and fans, can play a part in the making of this album. And here’s how: The CD will be entitled Songs From My Shelf, so-called because every song on the CD will contain at least one literary allusion–to a novel, a poem, etc. And as I mentioned above, it’s going to have at least a few rerecordings of old songs on it. So here’s how you can participate: Vote for your favorite previously-recorded song from the list below. The song or two with the most votes will get a brand-new recording and will make it onto the album!

And even that’s not all! The first five people who can correctly identify at least one literary allusion in each of the songs below will receive a free copy of Songs From My Shelf along with an exclusive bonus song.

So let’s recap:

  1. I’m making a new album!
  2. You can participate by voting for your favorite song to get a new recording and a place on the new album!
  3. If you correctly identify at least one literary allusion in each of the songs below, you’ll get a free copy of the CD with a bonus song!

If you need a refresher on the music or lyrics for the songs, click on the title to be taken to the song’s page on my website. Then click the link after the list to be taken to the voting page!

“All I Need”

“The Aisle”

“Beren’s Song”

“Too Far”

“Watchin’ From A Distance”

And now that you’ve refreshed your memory, click to vote here!

Thanks for your interest and support! I’m really excited about making this new record, and I can’t wait for you to hear it. Stay tuned to your favorite listening blog–further news will be forthcoming!

EDIT (5/27): All the old Blogger posts have now been imported, complete with their labels/tags/categories! Some of the links may not work anymore (since the URL path for links to other posts is different now), and it looks like embedded videos show up simply as links; but all the content is there now. Rock on!

EDIT (later on 5/27): I’ve reconfigured the RSS feed link in the sidebar. If you’ve previously subscribed to the RSS feed, you might need to subscribe again since the address has changed, and the past TLB RSS feed no longer works. Sorry for any inconvenience!

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05.09.2009

Red Balloon, Sandra McCracken

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:11 pm

This past week and a half or so, I’ve been listening again to an album by Sandra McCracken, Derek Webb’s wife. Her latest, entitled Red Balloon, is my favorite of her seven albums, and the best in my opinion (which I recently relayed to her, although sadly I didn’t get a response).

In order to make some of the comments I’d like to make about this CD, I have to go back a bit and mention a few things about her last few albums. (If you’d like to follow along you can see her discography here.) She’s always had a folk/acoustic/singer-songwriter sound, with some country flavoring, and apart from her third release (Best Laid Plans) her music has always fallen on the underproduced side, opting for real-life simplicity and grit instead of slick production. However, following Derek Webb who used the technique beginning with his album Mockingbird in 2005, on her next few albums (The Builder and the Architect and Gravity | Love, as well as Ampersand EP with Webb) she adopted what I tend to think of as a “tired” sound. Most of the instruments and vocals on those albums were recorded in her home as opposed to a studio, and so have a very unproduced, almost grainy sound to them. (This sound, though, is intentional, it’s not due to a lack of quality recording or production.) The songs were generally slow or mid tempo, without too much energy or quick movement. The main aspect of the “tired” sound, though, was a technique of recording the main vocal track twice, that is, singing and recording it once, and then singing and recording it a second time without changing the first one. The slight differences in intonation, different timings for final consonants (e.g. the “t” sound at the end of a word being heard twice, one a little after the other), and lack of polishing on the vocal production leads to a sound that is very original (in my experience). It’s almost like an in-tune, good-song version of the Juno sound”, in a way. But it’s still not a sound that I particularly enjoy, or at least it’s not one that I could listen to all the time.

Which is why I love Red Balloon, which was released last September and produced by McCracken, Webb, and often-collaborator Cason Cooley (whom I recently wrote about on TLB). It keeps the best aspects of the “tired” sound–the house-recorded feel, the cool drum sounds, some effective use of the vocal doubling–without the tiresome aspects, like the lack of variation in tempo, the lack of energy and too much use of the doubling. Guitar and piano (both of which Sandra plays) freely trade primary importance, and the drums and percussion sound really good and have some really cool grooves (listen, for example, to the sweet percussion on the sixth track, “On The Outside,” and the drums on “Halfway,” track seven).

I also enjoy the lyrics quite a bit. Red Balloon was her first solo studio album released after the birth of her first child, and most of the record is about the emotions and experiences that that brought with it. (I especially love the opening lyrics to the second song, “Storehouse”: “The first uninterrupted sleep since July / The first waves of wisdom swing like a wrecking ball / A child takes the throne / Displacing us all / In good time, just in time…”). McCracken is not as brilliant a lyricist as Webb, but she’s got skills and the lyrics on this album are particularly emotional and evocative.

I only have two problems with this album. The first is that her promotional email touted it as including “ten previously unreleased songs.” Technically that’s true, but the last song, “The High Countries,” was previously released by Caedmon’s Call on their album Back Home, and so I didn’t get the ten brand-new songs that I was hoping for. Even though it’s a different recording, calling it a “previously unreleased song” is a bit of a stretch. And that’s really the only song I’m not a big fan of on Red Balloon–I think the Caedmon’s version is better. The other problem I had was that it came “in a special two-disk package.” The entire album consists of ten songs, of normal song length (between three and five minutes); but it arrived as two CDs, labeled “Side A” and “Side B,” each containing five songs. Kind of a cool idea in theory, and listening to the songs there’s definitely a coherent feel to each of the halves by themselves; but practically, that’s just annoying. The first thing I did when I got the album was to burn all the songs onto a single CD.

But those are my only beefs. This is a great album and I’ve listened to it a lot without growing tired of it. The songwriting is great (especially when you know the back story about her son being born), the sound is original, and it’s inspiring to those of us who are aspiring independent songwriters ourselves.

You can find Red Balloon on iTunes and Amazon, as well as at the Sandra McCracken Official Online Shop. If you’d like a test drive first, you can hear four tracks from the album (“Guardian,” “Lock and Key,” “On the Outside” and “Big Blue Sky”) on Sandra McCracken’s Myspace page. You can see video of Sandra and Derek performing “Halfway” and “Lose You” at a recent house show by clicking on the links; and on that same page you can read Sandra’s account of the recording of the album.

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04.15.2009

The piece that I introduced to our friend last weekend is a favorite of mine. It’s a much smaller piece, in length and in scope, than Pärt’s Credo, but it’s a brilliant concept.

I was first exposed to the music of the Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt (born 1915) at Cal State Fullerton; in the University Singers choir, we sang an a cappella piece of his called Be Not Afraid. After a powerful chordal introduction, the bottom three parts (alto, tenor and bass) settled into an almost pop-music-like “groove,” a repeating pattern of chords with a dynamic rhythm, while the sopranos sang the melody over the top of it. I thought that was really cool, so I resolved to research the composer a little more. My choir director gave me another piece of his called O Crux, which is another terrific piece that I should post about sometime. And for Christmas that year, after searching far and wide for it, my mother got me the CD Nystedt: Sacred Choral Music, which includes recordings of both O Crux and the piece at hand: Immortal Bach.

Immortal Bach (1988) is modeled on Bach’s chorale “Komm, süsser Tod” (“Come, Sweet Death”), and is a deconstruction of the piece for a cappella choir. The choir begins by singing the chorale through as it was written (or at least harmonized) by Bach–the original version, consisting of three phrases, each of which have a cadence, or a progression leading to a particular chord, at the end. (The piece is in C minor; the first phrase ends on an E-flat major chord [III], the second on a G major chord [V], and the last, of course, on C minor [i].) Then, the choir sings through each of the three phrases again. But this time, each part moves at a different slow pace through the phrase, so that all of the parts move independently of the others. The result is exquisite, as the parts combine in different ways, the dissonances of the piece are extended and new sonorities are created. At the end of each phrase, all the parts come to rest on the final chord (eventually), there is a pause, and the next phrase begins. It’s incredibly simple, but incredibly beautiful as well.

I’ve seen two performances of the piece, both of which included a unique element. The first (by the John Alexander Singers of the Pacific Chorale) was performed in “surround sound,” with the 24 singers arranged around the audience. I believe this is how the score dictates that it should be performed (I tried for a long time to find a copy of the score viewable online, because I’d like to see what it looks like, but my efforts were to no avail). It was a pretty cool effect, but I felt like I couldn’t hear every part as well as I would have liked to. The second performance (by the Chamber Singers of Cal State Fullerton), directed by the same conductor who introduced me to Nystedt (Dr. Robert Istad), used motions to represent visually what was happening in the music. Each of the phrases had a corresponding motion (raising the arms, etc.) that each member of the choir acted out through the course of the phrase, so that at first all of the motions were done in sync. But in the subsequent phrases, each singer moved through the motion at the same rate they moved through the phrase, so you could see how all of the singers were at a different point in the music; but they all came together to the same position as they came together on the chord at the end of each phrase. It was a clever idea, and I enjoyed that performance a great deal.

It may sound cool when I describe it, but of course you really just have to listen to it. Click on the video below to hear a recording by the group Ensemble 96, conducted by Øystein Fevang. Gorgeous.

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04.10.2009

I’m surprised, upon a quick look back over TLB, that I’ve never posted about Derek Webb before and I’ve only mentioned him a few times in passing, since he’s one of my favorite songwriters. That makes it ironic, too, I guess, that this first time I post about his music, he won’t be the focus. Ah well.

After listening multiple times through The Book of Secrets this past week in my car, I switched it out for Mockingbird, Derek Webb’s fourth solo album, since I realized I hadn’t listened to anything of his for a while. Each one of his solo albums is in a completely different style than the others, and this one has a stripped-down, simple, house-recorded feel to it (I guess because it is all of those things). In recording the album, the band did very few overdubs (recording multiple times through a song on the same instrument, or a similar one), resulting in simple instrumentation and little reworking or extra production. It’s not a sound I could listen to all the time, but I do enjoy it on this album.

What caught my attention this time through, as it has several times before, is the piano playing by Cason Cooley. On Derek Webb’s previous album I See Things Upside Down, Cooley mostly played keyboards that did a bunch of crazy things, but on Mockingbird it’s almost all straight piano. What I love about his playing is that oftentimes it’s very simple, almost too simple, and yet with a few notes he’s able to create a memorable riff or accompaniment pattern that fits perfectly with the style of the song. On track two, “A New Law,” the piano provides the primary motion of the harmonic accompaniment as well as the main riff of the song–and all Cooley is doing is arpeggiating root position triads in a certain way. For “A King & A Kingdom” (track three), he does the same thing with even fewer notes: he starts by playing a held octave, then a major seventh (moving the bottom note of the octave up a half step), then a few descending notes before returning to the octave. Incredibly simple, yet along with the drums it sets the mood for the whole song. And his playing is in a similar vein all throughout the album. The Romantic composer Johannes Brahms once said, “It is not hard to compose, but what is fabulously hard is to leave the superfluous notes under the table.” Cooley is a performer who knows how to leave the superfluous notes behind and make the most of the ones he keeps. I wish I could play so well.

You can listen to “A New Law” and “A King & A Kingdom” courtesy of Last.fm by visiting their respective links and clicking on the black play button in the player on the right side of the page.

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04.05.2009

The Book of Secrets, Loreena McKennitt

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:24 am

Among the smaller of the many benefits of marriage I’m enjoying is access to my wife’s music collection. This past week I’ve been listening to a CD of hers entitled The Book of Secrets, by Canadian songstress Loreena McKennitt. I posted a tweet on my Twitter page about listening to her music on Sunday night, although I misspelled her first name; I classified her style as “traditional Irish music with a New Agish twist.” McKennitt’s website describes her music as “eclectic Celtic,” while her Wikipedia article notes that her music “has generally been classified as World / Celtic music even though it contains aspects and characteristics of music from around the globe and is sometimes classified as Folk music in record stores.”

I’ve enjoyed the CD a great deal this week. The Celtic influence is certainly the strongest, yielding such things as traditional Irish instruments like the fiddle, pennywhistle and ethnic percussion, and songs that are often in natural minor (e.g. D natural minor: D, E, F, G, A, B-flat, C-natural, D). There is also Middle Eastern influence in some of the rhythms and other stringed instruments. But she also uses synths and atmospherics to lend her music a timeless, mystical feel. There are plenty of people who create hacked Celtic music nowadays, but McKennitt stands above the fray with a high-quality and eminently listenable product. I’ve noticed that a lot of the music on The Book of Secrets is pretty repetitious–a progression and melody line will often repeat four times without any variation–but that also adds somewhat to the mystical quality of the music.

Apparently, McKennitt is self-managed, self-produced, and the head of her own record label (called Quinlan Road) which has released all twelve of her albums (The Book of Secrets falls right in the middle of her discography, released in 1997). She’s written original music for several Shakespeare productions in Canada, as well as contributing songs to Hollywood feature films (Highlander III and The Santa Clause) and TV soundtracks (TNT’s miniseries The Mists Of Avalon, Due South, and Northern Exposure). A pretty impressive CV.

Eleanor has several other McKennitt CDs in her collection, besides The Book of Secrets. I have a feeling I’ll be checking them out soon.

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04.02.2009

"Haydn Go Seek"

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:35 am

I was reminded again by this article a few days ago that the bicentennial of Franz Josef Haydn’s death is coming up this May–he died May 31st, 1809. (The article, written by Fred Sanders, appeared on Scriptorium Daily, the blog of Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute.) The best line from the article: “Start listening now so you’ll be ready for the big Haydn go seek party.” Sanders mentions that Haydn’s oratorio The Creation was the first piece of music to be studied as a text in the Torrey program and goes on to describe how the students study and analyze it. (My younger brother is a current Torrey student; I wonder if he’s gotten to that point of the curriculum yet?)

The article got me thinking about how little of Haydn’s music I know. Much of his work falls into the movement of Classical composition known as “Böoring” to modern listeners; but I decided that as a composer myself, I should at least make the acquaintance of some of his greater pieces.

So I shall set myself this goal: listen to three major Haydn works, at least twice apiece, during the month of April. One of them will be The Creation, since I was so inspired by Sanders’ article. Now I set you, my loyal readers, this goal: suggest for me what the other two works should be–and/or recommend recordings of those or of The Creation that you particularly enjoy. I know that many of my readers may not have a lot of experience in Haydn’s music; but maybe you can do some research on your own! So, dear readers, bring on your suggestions, and I’ll write about ‘em here in a later post!

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02.03.2009

"Life In Technicolor," Viva La Vida, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:00 am

In my car this past week I’ve been listening again to Viva La Vida, and it never fails to be awesome. I’ve been impressed recently with “Life In Technicolor,” the first track. It’s instrumental, so there are no lyrics and only a brief appearance by the vocals. But it’s an example of perfectly crafted “unfolding” (a term, I believe, used by John Cage in some of his lectures–a professor at CSUF introduced me to the concept). I’ve written before that musical form is the balance of repetition and contrast, and “Life In Technicolor” is an excellent example.

After the initial fade-in of the electronics and a few times through their progression, a hammered dulcimer begins the main riff of the song by itself. Then the song continually builds, gradually adding instruments and slowly morphing the chord progressions, all the while having way too much fun. The balance of continuity and repetition with new, evolving, unfolding material is pitch-perfect–which is hard to achieve in a pop song. Since most pop songs have simple progressions and standard instrumentation, an instrumental pop song without vocals can get boring very quickly. But even though “Life In Technicolor” still uses only standard pop chords (I, IV, V and vi, for those keeping score at home), it mixes up the instrumentation a little and manages to sustain interest by keeping that perfect balance. It builds to an exciting climax and then quickly falls and blends seamlessly into the next track, “Cemeteries Of London” (which I just now realize is incorrectly labeled “Cemeteries In London” in the title of the linked post… darn it).

You can listen to “Life In Technicolor” here, courtesy of Last.fm: click on the black play button in the player on the right side of the page.

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12.16.2008

Noël, Josh Groban: Revisited

Posted by AJ Harbison at 11:34 pm

First of all, I must apologize (again) for my inconsistent posting of late. I’ve been quite busy over the past 5 days, but I would hate for you, my loyal readers, to feel neglected. So I will endeavor to do a better job in the coming weeks!

My last post, about Josh Groban‘s Christmas CD Noël, garnered five comments (with none from me)–the greatest number of comments I’ve ever gotten from readers, apart from the discussion generated by my first post on comprehensive listening. So, rather than replying to each of the five comments, I thought I’d write a dedicated post for that purpose.

Before I begin, let me say that perhaps I was a bit hasty and a bit harsh in my original judgment of the CD. I still stand by my principle that there’s not much that’s original or interesting in the arrangements, apart from “Little Drummer Boy,” although I’ve since gained a greater appreciation for “What Child Is This?” as well–it has a very appropriate quality of mystery and wonder about it that sets it apart from most of the other tracks. But upon further listening, I admit that the CD is not quite as cheesy as I made it out to be–sentimental, yes, but not (too) cheesy. And, as my lovely fiancée and at least one of my commenters pointed out, sentimentality is part of the whole point of Christmas music, so it can be forgiven perhaps more readily than in other genres.

So much for my preamble. On to the comments! The first one was from an anonymous poster:

The boy soprano on the “Little Drummer Boy” track is actually a girl! More specifically, David Foster’s daughter!

An honest mistake on my part, and one that I feel pretty foolish about. But, especially considering the boys’ choirs on a few other songs, I hope it’s a forgivable one–and come on, didn’t anyone else think it was a boy, without looking at the liner notes? N.B. David Foster is the musician who arranged and played piano on many of the tracks on the CD.

Another anonymous comment:

I always think it’s interesting that Josh’s voice still is trying to be forced into the classical category, when that’s not what he considers himself. While classicaly trained – which continues to this day – his love of music leads him in many directions….

The Christmas album was done at the urging of his fans who’ve wanted one for a few years now. It was fast – but turned out to be brutal to other artists in the record industry proving that Josh’s talent is not to be laughed at.

There are too many facets to this young man to hold him down to one genre, thank goodness. And still, he’s in his own lane.

It’s an interesting comment on our country’s musical culture to note that people try to force Groban’s voice into the classical category–perhaps we think that someone with such a great voice could not, would not or should not be performing in any other! His classical training is certainly evident in his singing, and I’m glad to hear that it continues. As I said in the last post, I would really like to hear him sing some great classical music, but at the same time whatever genre he doesn’t sing is another genre’s gain. It would be great to see him on a Broadway stage, assuming he can act as well. I’m not surprised that the album was done to placate his fans (it seems few popular artists escape a Christmas album these days), but I am glad it turned out better than most. I will check out the albums and YouTube video this commenter suggested (would you care to reveal your identity for this post, loyal reader?). And I agree that Groban is in his own lane.

The third comment was from Ryan Fleming, whom I can always count on for good insights:

I can see how a musician with a college degree in composition can find the arangement of most of Josh’s songs unoriginal or even cheesy; but while it may be unoriginal it still sounds good (in my opinion). I especially love the “inspirational” whole step key changes that you mentioned, especially when there is a break in the music right before hand. And I always find those sappy strings to be such a beautiful addition to any classical/pop music. I think these type of musical additions may be overused, but this is so because of the great impact it can have on a song. I do believe that they add a lot of power and feeling to a song.

As I am fond of saying, clichés are clichés for a reason–it’s because they’re so often true, or, in this case, because they so often work. As Fleming points out, these are all effective musical devices. However, these effective devices have become clichés precisely because they are overused. They do work, but they’ve been done so often that they lose some of their power and effectiveness. When I correctly sang along with the key change in “Little Drummer Boy,” it induced laughter rather than affected emotion because it was so predictable. I agree that they’re all legitimate musically, and that they sound all right; but with such a talent as Groban’s, I would have liked to see some more original arrangements–that is, arrangements that utilized skillful creativity, rather than resorting to hackneyed stuff that everybody does.

Darth_Harbison was the next reader to comment:

I don’t have enough musical knowledge to take issue with most of what you said, but I feel the need to jump to Groban’s defense because (while I don’t personally own any of his CDs) I greatly enjoy his music. I shall therefore refrain from taking issue with any of the musical issues and focus on the Christmas CD . . .

You criticize it as being “unoriginal” in “the most overdone genre of music in contemporary history.” This may be true, but I think that part of the charm of Christmas music is that it’s always pretty much the same. I love it as much as the next person when someone does something really new and creative without really changing anything (ala Mannheim Steamroller or Trans-Siberian Orchestra), but I think a lot of traditional Christmas music could be ruined in the name of “originality.” Of course, this might just be me, since as you know I’m big on tradition.

You also criticized it for sappy sentimentalism . . . And while generally I agree that it’s not a good thing (although I like “You Raise Me Up” a fair amount), I think that, again, it can be forgiven in Christmas music–in fact, I think it’s part of the point. There are, of course, some Christmas songs with enough actual depth that sappy sentimentalism seems almost irreverent (e.g. Joy to the World, perhaps the most brutalized-by-overuse song of all time), but I don’t think that indulging ourselves in enjoying sappy sentimentalism at Christmas is necessarily be a bad thing. The way I see it, as long as we keep in mind (for lack of a less cheesy phrase) the true meaning of Christmas, there’s really no harm in enjoying it as a secular holiday, as well.

And I’m happy that you think Little Drummer Boy is so good, because this CD basically made it one of my favorite Christmas songs.

My response here is basically the same as my response above–too much of a pretty good thing is not as good as just enough of a really good thing. (If that makes any sense…) I do agree that Christmas music can be ruined by originality. A case in point (at least for me) is the movement in recent years of arranging hymns, including Christmas hymns, in a light-jazz style with lots of unusual extended chords (seventh chords, ninth chords, eleventh chords, etc.)–which “O Come All Ye Faithful” on Noël falls into in places. That’s just annoying to me, and just because it’s original doesn’t make it good. However, I’m not advocating radical departures from tradition here. “Little Drummer Boy” is original a
nd creative without departing at all from the essence of the song. It’s just enough originality to spice up the song and set it apart from less worthy arrangements, while not going too far. Originality in moderation. And, as I said above, I suppose my view on its sentimentality is more lenient than in my original post.

And the final comment comes from a self-so-called lurker, Roberta:

OK. I feel the need to comment here even though I just usually just lurk.
I agree with both Darth and Ryan’s comments. Believe it or not, I own the CD. It was the third Christmas album I listened to this year, after Chanticleer and The Cambridge singers. I have to tell you that the reason I bought it is “The Voice.” I think sentimental can be overdone but this album has just the right amount that we expect from a Christmas recording. There are many others that are so sentimental they make me cry – and I don’t mean that in a good way! I have to admit, I always skip the track Josh sings with Faith Hill. That is simply painful for me to listen to. His voice, singing familiar songs makes this a must for my Christmas listening.

Again the sentimentality comes up–and again, I agree that Noël does strike a pretty good balance, upon further reflection. A CD like one by Mannheim Steamroller, as Darth mentioned above, perhaps avoids sentimentality altogether because its ideas are so different and fresh; and CDs that are nothing but sentimentality are so numerous that they need no example. But the present CD in question seems to fall comfortably (with its listeners and with itself) in the middle. And again, as Roberta points out, Groban’s voice is really the primary reason to listen to this CD. The arrangements may not be the best, the guest vocalists may be subpar, but ultimately the CD is carried by Groban’s talent. And that’s enough reason for one listen, at the very least.

So there you have it! Feel free to comment again if you’d like to respond to my responses–and I’d love for the anonymous commenters to reveal their identities, if they so choose. And keep the large numbers of comments a-comin’!

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