Saturday, December 24, 2005

Kat's Korner: Blunt's got the goods

[Note: This is the second of Kat's three commentaries this weekend. Yesterday Kat provided commentary on Carly Simon's No Secrets. Tomorrow she provides her third day of commentary.]

Wars don't always get theme songs written expressly for them. Ask the British. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" meant one thing to them in 1939. In the midst of WWII, it meant quite another. Something similar could happen with regards to James Blunt's "No Bravery."

There are children standing here
Arms outstretched into the sky
Tears drying on their face
He has been here
Brothers lie in shallow graves
Fathers lost without a trace
A nation blind to their disgrace.
Since he's been here.
And I see no bravery,
No bravery in your eyes anymore.
Only sadness.

That's the tenth and final song on Blunt's Back to Bedlam. It's a bold closer as Blunt writes of his own experience in the British military during Kosovo. Linda Perry provides her usual right-on production touches and the song springs fully born from your speakers. It no longer belongs to Blunt. Whether or not it will belong to the anti-war movement is a question the future will determine.

So who is James Blunt? If you haven't heard him but you've heard of him, groupies used to do the best p.r., then you probably know that he's been tagged by some as "the new Elton John."

That's not really accurate. I can hear as many similarities to Rufus Wainwright as I can too Elton John. Like John, or Wainwright, he plays piano. That's about all other than some similar enuciations. He certainly doesn't have Elton's range. In fact, vocally, he appears to owe more to Rod Stewart and the Gallagher brothers than Elton John.

But he's a singer-songwriter, he plays the piano, and he's British, so there are worse comparisons that could be made. Just don't buy the CD expecting to find ten knock offs of, say, "I'm Still Standing."

The standout track in this collection is "Goodbye My Lover" -- the one he wowed the Saturday Night Live studio audience with a few weeks back. It's a stark ballad featuring piano, organ, drums and, among other instruments, strings. The first time you hear the song, you'll probably be able to see some of the end rhymes coming and maybe you'll be able to half-sing along.

I'm not sure what to think of the lyrics, honestly. And certainly the music is your basic chords. What makes this song is the tension in Blunt's vocals. At times, he hesitates or stumbles only to quickly rush through a line. There's an energy in the performance that's unlike most of what gets played on the radio. And that we're talking about a vocal performance is, in itself, rather remarkable since most singer-songwriters aren't known for being remarkably gifted singers. Blunt may very well be one. It's harder to tell on other songs because, too often, just as he seems about to catch fire, the musical production comes marching in (loudly). On "Billy" for instance, just when Blunt's vocals are heating up, the Wurlitzer arrives.

It's at moments like that where you may find yourself wishing Linda Perry produced more than the final track. Too often Tom Rothrock, who had a hand in producing the other nine songs, seems to be going for the overblown Oasis feel.

Listening to Back to Bedlam, it's hard not to wish that there was a little more bedlam and a little less bombast. I'd even settle for some (Marc) Bolan.

It wouldn't matter so much were it not for the fact that Blunt seems to be ready for one of those moments that plucks an unknown musician and turns him (or her) into a Time cover and a multiple Grammy nominee. The kind of moment that, when it arrives, leads people like Maggie to insist, "Oh, I've been listening to him for years." No exclamation point, because that sort of remark is always tossed off in a blase manner. You want to underplay it when you're trying to claim to have gotten the bandwagon rolling as opposed to the having lept on as it careens down the hill.

There's a good chance that Blunt's due for that kind of ride. The songwriting and singing are strong enough to garner that kind of attention. If I seem to be quibbling about the production, it's because this truly should be a classic rock album. In an earlier era that would have meant only one highly polished track, which would be the designated single, and the rest of the tracks would be far less smooth. That's not the case on Back to Bedlam. But if you can get past producer Tom Rothrock's determination to pretty and tidy up, you'll find an album that's got quite a bit more on it's mind than the average Disney Kid is capable of. Maybe that has to do with the fact that Blunt has apparently lived a life far from the soundstages of the Mickey Mouse Club? Or maybe it's just the fact that he truly has talent?

Blunt's got the goods and before Clear Channel took over broadcast radio (and killed the little life that was left in it) and started pushing the Disney Kids off on us as the fad that they refuse to let fade (even though listeners for it have -- and the music industry wonders why sales are in the toilet) Blunt could have had a fair hearing. "High" is made for heavy rotation with its catchy chorus but "You're Beautiful" is the track that goes deeper into the personal.

If you're tired of the kewpie dolls (male and female) playing at naughty (a safe kind of rebellion which is why they continue to get airplay on Clear Channel stations), Back to Bedlam is an album you should check out. "No Bravery" may or may not inspire the anti-war movement but it's real and when an artist comes along who's willing to open up, that is bravery.