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Shining Star

Music Review: ‘Paper Stars’ by Ryan Calhoun

paper stars r calhoun

Does the new EP of five songs from Ryan Calhoun signal a musician on the rise?

CSF Music Group has released an EP of five new songs by Ryan Calhoun.   Let’s take a look at the tracks before arriving at a judgment about the release.

“Coffee” is a cute, bittersweet, song about a shy guy who’s mentally stalking a young woman that drops into the local coffee shop each morning.   “She’s the best part of my morning/And she don’t know me yet…/She’s an addiction like a shot of caffeine/She’s the reason why/Why I drink coffee.”   You can watch the video for this song on YouTube.   It’s got a touch of Justin Timberlake in the rhythm.   It’s the deserved single.

“Just as I approach her/She’s walking out the door/And I know that I’ll be back tomorrow.”   If Starbucks ever needs a theme for a TV commercial, this should be it.

Ryan Calhoun Paper Stars

“Paper Stars” combines more Timberlake-style pop-rock with a P. J. Pacifico-like sound.   This title song celebrates the simple joys of poverty, as experienced by a young couple.   “If you threw us a party for two/But the dinner you promised fell through/You ran out of time/We had burgers and wine on the floor/And we’d drink to a quarter to four/Till we pissed off the neighbors next door…/We will never be richer than being poor.”   This one should be popular with the college music crowd.

Ryan Calhoun If I Don't

“If I Don’t” is not rock or pop, it’s modern country.   This is a song that would fit perfectly on a Keith Urban or Darius Rucker album, and it’s spiced up with a trace of Tom Petty/Dwight Yoakum attitude.   “She’s the only thing I’ve ever really loved/Maybe nothing’s ever really good enough/She went left and I went right/There’s nothing left to decide.”   The singer knows he needs to propose to the woman he’s bought a ring for, but he can’t find enough courage to do so.   And if he doesn’t, someone else will take her down the aisle. (Listen to the track on YouTube and see if you agree that Keith Urban could sell a million downloads of this song.)

“Time and December” is pure Jim Croce, a variation of sorts on “Time in a Bottle.”   It channels Croce both in the lyrics and in the guitar-led melody.   “See, I thought I’d be something worth talking about/When I found myself coming back home/The more that I wander the more that I know/The more that I know I don’t know/So let’s raise up our glasses and toast to our dreams/I hope January will listen to me/Cause this year could be heaven or it could be hell/But I guess only time and December will tell.”   Very clever and satisfying.

“Stranger” might have fit well on Billy Joel’s The Stranger album.   It sounds like Joel backed by a U2ish wall of sound.   And the lyrics paint the portrait, as Joel often does, of a character that does not quite fit in:   “Everybody knows what nobody’s talking about/By the time we open up/It’s last call and they’re closing us down…/If I go and open up would you run/Or would you just let me be?/Let me be your stranger.”   Calhoun effectively borrows a line from George Harrison and incorporates it here: “If you don’t know where you’re going/Any road will take you there.”

Paper Stars is very well produced by Bill Lefler in Los Angeles.   There are no complaints about the sound.   The issue with Calhoun is evident if you watch several of his YouTube-posted videos.   He’s a musical chameleon.   Who he is varies with each song.   His versatility is a strength, but also a weakness that needs to be addressed.   After listening to many of Calhoun’s recordings, I’m not sure who he is as an artist and performer.   As an example, “Raise A Flag” from 2012 sounds nothing like the songs on Paper Stars.

ryan-calhoun-color-lo

Despite this minor critique, Calhoun’s a clearly talented musician.   Paper Stars is a fine release from a singer-songwriter about whom it can be said, the best is yet to come.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by a publicist.

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/music-review-ryan-calhoun-paper-stars-ep/

 

 

 

 

 

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Do You Remember

Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry by Gareth Murphy (Thomas Dunne Books, $27.99, 400 pages)

This book held out the promise of being a fascinating look into the radio and record industries, from 1853 until the present day. Unfortunately, it’s a bit more pedestrian than exciting as the account veers between focusing on record executives and producers, and the artists themselves. It’s more successful when it does the former; the latter is a pretty standard history of rock and pop music.

The story at times becomes incomprehensible, as in Chapter 30, “Bubblegum Forest,” where one reads that, “The gaudy covers of manufactured bands (in 2000-2001) paid their way into the end caps and began scaring away older audiences.” What?

Cowboys and Indies succeeds when it focuses on small, interesting tidbits of information, such as telling us about the production of Millie Small’s breakthrough cover of “My Boy Lollipop” in 1964. There’s also some good stuff on George Martin and the history of Abbey Road (whose studios were last significantly refurbished in 1931). And kudos to the writer for pointing out that the debate about the compression of music has been going on since 1953 – when John Hammond wrote a New York Times article “blaming modern production methods for compressing the sound on jazz records….”!

Cowboys

All in all, this book is likely to be too much “inside baseball” for most readers. There are other, truly fascinating, books out there about the music trade.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Note: Publishers Weekly stated that, “Murphy captures the ever-changing nature of the record industry as it ebbs and flows…” However, the publication also noted that this is an “oft-covered topic.” Indeed.

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White Flag

Did Dido include too much or not enough of her music on a greatest hits collection?

Dido Greatest Hits 2

I’ll admit to being a big fan of Dido. A few years back, I took time off from work in order to purchase her then-latest CD at the very hour of its release. That was Don’t Leave Home, which had some good songs. However, the album was overly compressed so that it sounded both loud and lifeless. Fortunately, bad sound is not a problem with Greatest Hits. (Most of the songs sound glorious in this edition, but no one is credited with the mastering.) As we will see, another issue comes to the fore with this 18-track, over 76-minute long compilation.

Dido singles

To her credit, Dido provides background information on most of the songs in this collection and confirms that she selected them and placed them in chronological order. One thing that’s clear on a first listen is that her best songs were created between 1999 and 2008. Later compositions are unimpressive. Although not mentioned in Dido’s notes, four songs in this collection (“Thank You,” “Sand In My Shoes,” “Don’t Believe In Love,” and “Everything To Lose”) are based on unique ’80s rhythms that appear to borrow from the work of Sade.

Greatest Hits kicks off with “Here With Me.” It’s now obvious how much this sounds like “White Flag,” her mega-hit that followed four years later. As with all of the songs on Greatest Hits, the stereo separation is excellent and the sound is full. “Hunter” is a stunning, dramatic song about a woman who feels like she’s nothing more than prey to a man. “White Flag,” which was the “Every Breath You Take” of 2003, sounds rich and bold, so much so that it’s as if one has never heard it before. (The programmed percussion is now audible.) Impressive.

“Life For Rent” follows, with drums played by Andy Treacey. “I still don’t live by the sea but I wish I did,” adds Dido in the notes. “Don’t Leave Home” now sounds fine. This is not a song about travel. It is actually a song about addiction, in which a young woman offers her love to a man as a replacement for his drugs. The lyrics are casually and coolly brilliant, in the style of Joni Mitchell: “I arrived when you were weak/I’ll make you weaker, like a child/Now all your love you give to me/When your heart is all I need.”

“Quiet Times” is a throwaway lullaby, but worth listening to as Dido plays the drum kit. One of the highlights of the collection is “Grafton Street,” a touching song (never released as a single) about a woman mourning the death of her father. Dido refers to it as “the most emotional” of her compositions. The ever-excellent Mick Fleetwood provides the drumming.

Dido 1

“No Freedom,” from 2013, sounds pretty weak and unimaginative. “End Of Night” comes off as a poor man’s version of Abba. Sigh. It may be that Dido has become too eclectic, or adopted eclecticism for its own sake in order to ward off attacks that her songs are too similar. And it gets worse with three songs on which she pairs with others: “Let Us Move On,” which includes a rap from Kendrick Lamar, “One Step Too Far” with Faithless, and the painful-to-listen-to “Stan” with Eminem. These three selections take up about 14 minutes. They all should have been dumped.

The compilation recovers to some extent with the penultimate song, “If I Rise,” with A. R. Rahman. It sounds like a Sting outtake, but grows on the listener. “Rise” was nominated for an Academy Award (used in the film 127 Hours). And then there’s “NYC,” the Euro disco closing track that sounds like the Bee Gees circa 1977. One can almost visualize Tony Manero dancing to this in his white disco suit!

Greatest Hits again proves the dictum that sometimes less is more. As a collection of 14 singles with a bonus track (“Grafton Street”), it would have been a perfect sampling of Dido’s music career. This 18-track compilation may give her fans and new listeners more than they bargained for. Still, if you’re willing to skip past three less-than-artistic recordings, it’s a worthwhile addition to your music library.

Recommended, with reservations.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by RCA Records.

This article originally appeared on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/music-review-dido-greatest-hits/

This review also appeared on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer site:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Music-Review-Dido-Greatest-Hits-5176380.php

You can hear a sample of each of the 18 songs here:

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You Can Close Your Eyes

Music review: The Essential James Taylor

Does a buyer get his or her money’s worth with this 2 CD, 30 song collection?

Sony’s Legacy Recordings gets some props for truth in labeling with this collection. They could have simply placed James Taylor’s 20 best-selling singles on one CD and it would have constituted a purchase-worthy collection. Instead, on The Essential James Taylor the listener/purchaser has those 20 songs plus an additional 10 more on two CDs.

For any greatest hits collection there will be some quibbles. I would have left off the overly short “Long Ago and Far Away” (which seemed to be an idea for a song rather than a finished item, on which Taylor was accompanied by Joni Mitchell). Instead, I would have included “Mockingbird,” on which Taylor sang with his then-spouse Carly Simon – assuming the rights were available for licensing from Elektra/Warner. And I would have preferred “Suite for 20G” instead of the live take on “Steamroller.” Nevertheless, all of Taylor’s hits – as documented by their Pop and Adult Contemporary peak chart positions – and several lesser-known songs are found here.

The Essential James Taylor

“Honey Don’t Leave L.A.,” written by Danny Kortchmar, is one of the fun and unexpected selections in this compilation. Fortunately, “Her Town Too,” co-written and performed by Taylor and the very talented J.D. Souther, is included. There’s an interesting track, “Hard Times Come No More,” recorded with Yo-Yo Ma and a jaunty live version of the classic “Country Road.” “Secret O’ Life” – recorded live, is a nice surprise for those not previously familiar with it.

The second of the two CDs concludes almost perfectly with two inspiring and life-affirming songs performed live, “My Traveling Star” with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and “You Can Close Your Eyes.”

A word about the sound. This compilation was produced by Bill Inglot and mastered by Vic Anesini. Anesini has been involved in mastering several Legacy discs, including Over the Bridge of Time: A Paul Simon Retrospective (1964-2011). Here, the Inglot-Anesini team has delivered a set of discs with a nice, warm mid-range tone that’s generally pleasing to the ear. This collection is not a case where artificial “punch” and jarring loudness are added for dramatic effect. The sound is as soothing as Taylor’s voice. And Taylor’s and Kortchmar’s guitar work is easily heard in the mix. There are a couple of tracks that sound a bit flat, as if one were listening to the songs over a set of television speakers. But all in all, it’s a compilation that sounds consistently fine whether one is listening at home or in the car.

It’s a bit of a puzzle as to why Inglot placed the songs in almost, but not quite, chronological order. Perhaps it has to do with the segues, deciding which song would sound best followed by another particular song. I would not change a thing about the song order on either disc.

This fresh look at Taylor’s career that spans the years 1968 through 2007 reminds us that he is, like Paul Simon, a true American treasure. James Taylor’s music has not just helped to – in the words of the liner notes – “define a generation,” it helped a generation to grow, survive and prosper even when times seemed to be at their worst (“Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.”).

Thank goodness we’ve been able to experience his artistry in our times. How sweet it was and still is.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by Sony Legacy Recordings.

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics site as an Editor’s Choice article:

http://blogcritics.org/music-review-james-taylor-the-essential-james-taylor/

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