I’m a piano player.
I’m not good enough to do it professionally or anything, but I started playing when I was six, and I’ve stuck with it when I can. I was the guy who knew how to plunk out Journey’s “Open Arms” and Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting” in high school, and I pretended to grumble each time I was asked to play them, but really, I loved it. And I still do love it whenever anyone asks me to play.
So naturally, I’ve always been drawn to the piano as an instrument. I was a Bruce Hornsby fan at an early age, I stuck with Billy Joel and Elton John far longer than anyone should, and you can just imagine how excited I was to hear Ben Folds for the first time. The ebonies and ivories still do it for me – from Keane to Jack’s Mannequin to Over the Rhine to Quiet Company to Kate Bush’s new record. I think it’s the most beautiful instrument there is, if it’s played right.
Which is why I’ll give anything that promises piano-pop a try. That’s how I ended up with so many Gavin Degraw records, but it’s also how I first heard Rufus Wainwright, and the amazing Jukebox the Ghost. It’s also the only excuse I have for liking the Fray, a band so average and banal that most critics have simply dismissed them. But not this idiot. I’ll keep buying their stuff and hoping to like it, largely because Isaac Slade plays piano, and the band puts that at the forefront of their sound.
Or at least, they did. The band’s self-titled second album was a huge step in the right direction for me, with some tricky and memorable songs, and a strong focus on the piano melodies. “Syndicate,” “Absolute,” “Say When,” “Enough for Now,” “We Build Then We Break” – all pretty nice songs that found the Fray sounding like an honest-to-god piano-pop band. There were some lame tracks, and of course they were the hits, but The Fray sounded like the work of a band determined to forge its own identity, limitations be damned.
Alas, here’s Scars and Stories, the band’s third, and all that work has been washed away. The band hired Brendan O’Brien to produce, presumably hoping he would add some punch to their sound. And he has, by de-emphasizing the piano, moving the guitars up front, and smoothing everything out. Slade’s keys are now just a part of the sound – it’s there, on every track, but it never grabs the spotlight the way I want it to. The guitars are certainly louder and more prominent, but everything’s been blanded up to a sad degree.
The problem isn’t just with the sound, though. It’s the songs. I’ve heard Scars and Stories four times now, and I still don’t remember most of these tunes. The hooks just aren’t there, and the melodies that are there are completely forgettable. First single “Heartbeat” sets the whole tone – the simplistic chorus sounds like it’s building to something, but it isn’t. That’s it. A song like “Run For Your Life” ought to be better – it’s dramatic and massive, but it never gets off the ground.
You have to wait until track six, “1961,” to hear a melody that will stick with you. And you have to wait until track seven, “I Can Barely Say,” to hear Slade’s piano take center stage. That’s a slight song with a shaky, emotional falsetto chorus, but it’s drowned in a goopy orchestral arrangement. The record gets better near the end – “Here We Are” is a somewhat convincing attempt to ape early U2, complete with raging electric guitar, and I like the simple sentiments of closing hymn “Be Still.”
Otherwise, though, there isn’t much here you wouldn’t find on your average Lifehouse album, and that’s pretty depressing. The band members say they took some time to see the world before writing tracks for this album, and found inspiration in other countries. “Munich,” for example, was supposedly inspired by the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, located at CERN in Switzerland. But you’d never know it from the average love song lyrics: “Girl you know it terrifies me, and I don’t know why, there you go, you paralyze me, and I don’t know why…”
It’s all so blasé, so achingly normal. I expect this album will do very well for the band, but speaking as someone who enjoyed the piano-pop direction of their last effort, I’m disappointed in this one. They’ve taken everything that set them apart and ground it into dust, emerging as just another in a million typical radio-ready pop acts. Sad, really.
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So yeah, sometimes it doesn’t work out, but quite often, it does. It was my fascination with piano pop that led me to the work of Jonathan Jones, for instance, a little-known California songwriter who has been pounding the keys (and singing winning melodies over them) on record since 2004. He’s led two bands, Waking Ashland and We Shot the Moon, and though the latter is still a going concern, he’s also embarked on a solo career. Last year, Jones took to Kickstarter to officially launch that career, asking fans to help fund a new album.
That album is now here, and it’s pretty great. It’s called Community Group, and though it’s barely half an hour long, it’ll give you a good idea of Jones’ sound. He eases you in with the brief, plaintive “Last Place,” cellos sighing longingly, and then smacks you with “The Living Dead,” a world-class pop song. With one “wait it out, wait it out,” he’s got me. I love this. And the quality never lets up over Community Group’s 10 tracks.
I’m simply in love with the title track, a nostalgic vision of meeting the one you love at “Tuesday night community group.” The fun brass parts only serve to accentuate the heartfelt chorus. I also adore “Hey Andy,” the album’s most brash rocker, all about convincing a friend to start a band. (“So put in your two weeks at the factory, Andy…”) And “Brand New Eyes” balances off the piano and electronic drums with a rustic banjo.
Lyrically, this is Jones’ most searching, spiritual record, with several songs dedicated to seeking out lost faith. “Duracell” is a head-swaying, tuba-honking, Beatlesque number, over which Jones asks, “Where’d the spirit go?” “My Faith” is the most straightforward – over tender piano chords and glorious strings and brass, Jones pleads, “Where’s my faith, please come out of hiding, my poor heart is crying for you.” But by the time he reaches the album’s sweet acoustic conclusion, “Morning Light,” he’s ready to hope: “Morning light, sweet morning light, be my strength ‘til the day I die, a brand new life for you and I…”
I feel pretty safe in saying you likely haven’t heard Jonathan Jones. But this brief, terrific little album is worth your time. You can hear it all for free here. Jones is working on a new We Shot the Moon record now, but I hope he doesn’t give up his solo work. Community Group may be the best thing he’s done.
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And sometimes, great piano-pop simply passes me by.
My friend Tony Shore hosts a splendid podcast at www.obviouspop.com, and I’m sure at one point over the last year or so, he recommended Ian Axel to me. And I dropped the ball. It took hearing Axel’s tremendous song “Waltz” on the Obvious PopCast year-end extravaganza to get me to wake up. “Waltz” is a devastatingly good song, and most of Axel’s 2010 debut album, This is the New Year, lives up to it. When I say I love piano pop, this is what I’m talking about.
New Year starts with “Leave Me Alone,” a bouncy kiss-off set to pounded chords, handclaps, and a joyous sound that hides the bitterness beneath. “Afterglow” is all joy, the melodramatic strings giving way to Axel harmonizing with himself. It’s just a great song, and its follow-up, “Gone,” is just as good – in fact, it’s as good a left-and-leaving song as any I’ve heard. The title tune is delirious, Axel adding flailing guitar heroics to his keys, and then stripping it all away at the most dramatic moment.
The centerpiece of this album is still undoubtedly “Waltz,” a powerhouse piece of writing. It lurches forward on an inexorable three-four beat, and builds up and up to the magnificent chorus: “You can’t stop us now, no, you can’t stop us…” The album never quite hits those all-together-now heights again, but its second half is still strong. “Cannonball” is a brief piano-and-strings interlude that strikes gold, “Girl I Got a Thing” is a wonderful pop song, and “We Are” is a simple number that somehow unfolds into an epic. (Sad-sack conclusion “Say Something” is also simple, but doesn’t fare as well.)
I owe Tony Shore a lot, and this superb album puts me even further in his debt. Ian Axel is a talent worth following, and I plan to follow him from here on out. Check him out here.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.