Recordings | December 2017

By Julio C. Reyna, December 2017 Web Exclusive.

Artist: Various Artists
Album: Tegan and Sara Present The Cox X: Covers
Label: Warner Brothers

To commemorate the 10-year anniversary of their pivotal fifth album, The Con, Tegan and Sara have opted to forgo the re-release path and instead handpicked various artists to cover each song for The Con: X.  The album mostly excels because of this attention to detail, with many managing to make the tracks completely all their own. Everyone from Ryan Adams, Cyndi Lauper, Chrvches, Mykki Blanco, Muna, Shamir, Hayley Williams and many more are involved, making this also a queer and queer ally affair.

What makes the compilation fascinating is the fact that, at times, these covers can make the dark and sad nature of some of these songs even more present. The main culprit may be that like the band itself, the tracks mostly steer toward a more electronic/synth direction versus the guitar-driven originals. The battle of the band Tegan and Sara was in 2007 versus who they are today is on clear display here.

“Floorplan,” a stand out track is where Sara Bareilles strips away the fast paced guitar strums and airy high pitched vocals and creating a slower piano-driven and moodier affair. The HAIM-esque chord progression of the chorus makes the line “I know I’ll hold this pain in my heart forever” the focal point of the song while the original treats it almost like a throw away.

While the album is almost the sonic opposite of the original, it all feels familiar. For listeners, it not only helps evoke feelings of nostalgia, but may also perk some interest in checking out many of the featured acts. For an album that nearly tore the band apart this compilation also serves as a reminder of how far they have come and how far reaching their influence has been. Most of all, it is a testament of their staying power.

Artist: Kelly Clarkson
Album: Meaning Of Life
Label: Atlantic

There is the old saying, “if it ain’t broke, dont fix it” and much of Kelly Clarkson’s albums seem to fall into that category. The first “American Idol” winner is now well over 15 years into her career and this idea has worked in her favor. So, what happens when an act is finally freed from their label and has the opportunity to finally change directions? In this case, Clarkson’s taken the reigns and made the album she has always wanted to make.

Meaning Of Life strives to move in a soulful-sound direction – think of it as more of an homage to Aretha Franklin and less a complete sonic shift into another genre. Some things that are not broken do not need to be fixed and classic Clarkson is on full display: vocals front and center, huge hooks and even bigger choruses.

While the ultimate goal of staying radio friendly is achieved here, “Whole Lotta Woman” takes a small detour into Meghan Trainor territory that perhaps should have been left out. The proclamations throughout seem forced and it is a track that almost seems beneath her. If we know anything about Clarkson’s projects, we know each one features a power ballad. Here we have “I Don’t Think About You,” and it’s one of her best vocal performances to date. Spoiler alert: Take the build up to the bridge and high note that immediately follows it,  you have the album’s stand out moment.

This album is a treat, as Clarkson has not sounded this empowered in the past and her involvement in every aspect of the record is obvious. For an act that has been around for so long, fans will be thankful that she has never veered far from her vocal-driven pop.

Artist: Sam Smith
Album: The Thrill Of It All
Label: Capitol

The massively talented and accomplished Sam Smith has made a grand return with his sophomore effort The Thrill Of It All. In it, a more polished Smith attempts to move forward in his material and with his life. The problem here is that, perhaps, his massive success is the true hindrance. Aside from a few audible tweaks – and the fact that his antagonist is finally referred to as “him” – the album rarely moves past the formula that brought him into the limelight.

Lyrically the album sticks to the same themes of heartbreak, moving on and finding oneself. While his heart is still longing for his lover (“One Day At A Time”) he is more defiant in setting forth his expectations (“One Last Song”, “Too Good At Goodbyes”). There is the juxtaposition between the kiss offs and pleas to stay.  Smith has added gospel choirs throughout and, while this can certainly elevate a track, the repetitive use becomes redundant. At this point there is no build or anticipation. It becomes the equivalent of waiting for the drop in a dance song.

It seems Smith has borrowed from a few of his British counterparts, on the excellent “Say It First” the guitar comes eerily close to sounding like a song from The xx. And on “Midnight Run” the chord progression and guitar are almost identical to Radiohead’s “Creep,” so close that if they do not have a sample credit, there will likely be a lawsuit heading his way.

As a whole, the album shows that Smith is now in a place where he is coming to terms with who he is – in both his personal life and through his artistic expression. While the gains are not huge or a complete sophomore shift, the album will do the job as a natural next step from his debut. Simply put, The Thrill of it All is rarely very thrilling.