US - Pennsylvania - Full Moon 125 - 12/05/06
This year's unexpected arousal of radio artists showing anathematic potential on their new records is as exciting to the post-9/11 cultural pessimist as the election of the 110th Congress. For a long time KT Tunstall's Eye To The Telescope was leading my list of best albums this year (god damn TV on the Radio had to spoil it!), and I'm sure that decision is perceived by some as far too centrist. Most listened to her single "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" and heard Alanis Morrisette mixed with some ancient blues mythology when the song hit America. Those who bought her album heard heavy doses of Radiohead's The Bends inside careful, soulful balladry.
Within that album is the potential to rid the world of American Idol (the musical equal to the political stain of Republican corruption and the mess of Iraq): encouraging the adventurism of the indie world without being afraid of radio ready riffs. This is parallel to the compromise Democratic candidates had to make this electoral season-lesson learned: bitch about Bush... and abortion! The result: evangelicals concede W. is a little off his wagon and bubble gum radio takes a break from the grade-A bull shit that is Sean Paul.
In the new purple America, John Legend could be pop music's Barrack Obama: a potential alternative leader of a new era of middle-of-the-road, R&B optimism. Once Again is a flawed but encouraging stab at craftsmanship-an ideal nearly withdrawn from his genre. Legend has also mastered the art of making the past sound absolutely fresh. He recasts Marvin Gaye the way Guns N Roses reinvented Aerosmith in the late eighties: knowing where to put appropriate anachronisms (drum machines, synthesizer leads) to the old templates of soul. Yet where Once Again sounds the most natural is where it sounds the most progressive: "Each day gets sweeter/I just can't let her go" Legend laments over a cascading horns and a perfect Motown choir while inventing the perfect lost Temptations single. As 'old school' as that sounds it would be this kind of filler would be the highlight of lesser careers like Boys2Men or Omarion.
When Legend put out Get Lifted two years ago, it was the nice guy's answer to Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation... Romance was in the air, satisfied with fancy Mr. Rodgers style piano and Kanye West's backbeats. This follow up, is in its first half, a perfect portrayal of Legend's identity unblemished by Snoop Dog cameos or synthetic extremity. Like Prince he knows how to knock on alternative rock's door and ask for a favor. The guitar on "Show Me" might as well be John Fruciante, the same way the Purple One conjured his inner Frank Black to write "The Cross". That said, as long as Sign o' the Times is, it ever feels as overstuffed as Once Again. The hour long record is unfortunately plagued by the soured lounge act of "Maxine" and "Where Did My Baby Go?" You can blame it on a fair desire to recreate his Grammy winning, Elton John applauded hit "Ordinary People".
This glossy load is lightened by the theatrical entrance of "Maxine's Interlude". His potential to create such thematic weight elevates this material to the level of Marvin Gaye's or Bill Wither's strongest work-however momentarily. Legend returns to club balladry on "Another Again" that would be amusing on a Michael Bublé record, but it's better than just coughing out another Usher remake. In the final act, our courageous crooner tries to resurrect the effect with guitar samples of Stevie Wonder's "Visions" on the bonus track, it lands rather quietly as most bonus tracks do.
To be fair lounge pop is no cardinal sin, and neither is advocating freedom of arms next to freedom of speech. It's just that the cinematic soul hiding inside Once Again is long overdue for a revival (just like some sense of checks and balance on the Bush Administration). To narrow down the agenda of such an overweight release down to the latter and John Legend would be able to live up to his last name.
Copyright © 2006 Matthew DeMello