Rufus Wainwright to (finally) release a pop CD

Rufus Wainwright is one of those recording artists about whom his fans always assume he is more popular than he probably is. His lushly overproduced albums — portmanteau CDs of lush, wrenching ballads and retro-glam set-pieces — are beloved by his supporters, but probably lead to head-scratching among the rest of the music-buying public. I can’t recall the last time I heard one of his songs on the radio.

But apparently Rufus is aware of that — and wants to fix it. His new album, produced by Mark Ronson, will be his “most pop album … ever,” he says. Out of the Game will be released May 1.

Not familiar with Rufus? You should be. Watch this performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Disc men

Matt Zarley tackles relationships while Adam Tyler delivers smart pop on new releases

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

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2.5 out of 5 stars
CHANGE BEGINS WITH ME
Matt Zarley
Independent

Matt Zarley may be all scruff and muscle, but he has a sweet delicacy to his voice that’s properly displayed on his newest album, Change Begins With Me. He’s the product of Broadway, but it would seem his sights are on the music charts.

Back in May, Zarley previewed his album with “WTF,” a whimsical dance track that pitted an earnestly lovestruck singer against the man who done him wrong. The song is borderline silly, if fun, though the accompanying video was painful to watch.

For the most part, the tone of Change is adult contemporary but by a refreshingly new, gay (and far hunkier) version of, say, Michael Bolton or Phil Collins. Well-polished songs beautifully showcase Zarley’s vocal talents, on songs like “Perfect“ and “Forgive Me (For Not Forgiving You)” which evidence a tenderness that makes it almost hard not to swoon along.

Dance tracks, though, don’t do him justice nor add much to the album. His sexy talk in “Trust Me” is unconvincing. As the fifth song, Change, marks a small decline in making a bigger impression. The previous ballads, and even the album opener “WTF,” are engaging enough, but from “Trust” on, the songs almost disappear.

‘CHANGE’ IS GONNA COME | Matt Zarley is a whole lotta hunk, but surprises with an insightful album about his past relationships.

“Apology” and “I’ll Always Remember” display sweet emotion, but with ordinary skill. This is a shame; the album is well paced before it downshifts at this point. The fault though, is in the music. Lyrics resonate strongly and are probably my new go-to when I can’t find the words to appease an angry or hurt boyfriend.

The title track suffers from cheese factor, but it is less a self-help tune than an admission of bad love-life decisions. Zarley holds himself accountable for mistakes he made as a gay man — I’m not sure I’ve heard that message recorded before.  Sure, “Change” swells into a clichéd climactic chorus, but it’s a fascinating juxtaposition from the lead song.

I’m not a big fan of remixes, but the two bonus tracks of “WTF” surpass the original. The beats are a helluva lot of fun to groove to. Instead of reworking the song into an unrecognizable version, the remixes amp up the rhythm and scale back on some of the gimmickry of the original.

With bumps along the way, Zarley provides a collection of songs that start him in a bad situation and result in a brighter tomorrow … so much so that it may beg for an immediate second listen with some songs making more sense.
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3.5 out of 5 stars
SHATTERED ICE

Adam Tyler
Tiger Bay Records

Adam Tyler describes himself as a pop music geek and it shows on his debut release Shattered Ice. This is a good thing. He sidesteps a lot of easy traps to deliver 11 tracks of wow.
On first impression, Ice opens as any other dance album in the “dime a dozen” category, but quickly, the opening track, “Like a Drug,” moves into a techno-rock hybrid, hitting many correct notes. Tyler gives an onslaught of an opener that is held up by subsequent tracks.

The album leans more into electronica elements, but Tyler treats them with care, layering bass-lines and blippy flourishes into solid sounds. “Music Freak” could have easily been a pedestrian effort, but he saves it by not adding extraneous effects. Tyler has a gift for letting the song build itself rather than throwing everything against the wall to see what will stick.

Adam Tyler studies pop music enough to make some of his own with his debut album ‘Shattered Ice.’ With strong confidence, Tyler makes a stellar impression.

Tyler doesn’t have the vocal strength of Zarley, but he belts within reason and recalls some of the quality of Paul Lekakis. He has enough depth to go slower on the opening of “I Won’t Let You Go,” while offering a healthy set of lungs on the title track. There isn’t a lot of surprise in his vocal spectrum. This provides a particular comfort and even consistency, as his music should keep listeners on their toes.

The blemishes on this album are minimal and perhaps expected from a debut. “Forgive Me” is weak with middle school lyrics. “Touch” is a misguided track that begins with a keyboard track that sounds like a child trying to play ABBA’s “Lay All Your Love On Me.” Here, he makes the mistake of adding a little too much flair, and to a slower beat, it misses the bullseye.

The album recovers immediately with strong tracks like “Taking Back My Love” and “Let Me Breathe.”

Shattered Ice finishes with minimal versions of previous tracks that calm the robust energy down. “I Won’t Let You Go” on piano is a gorgeous ballad and “Forgive Me” fares far better as an acoustic tune than it did before in its electro incarnation. These add to Tyler’s versatility.

For a debut, Tyler seems to have set a goal and met it, which would explain the amount  of confidence in Ice. His songs don’t play as mere musical byproducts in search of superstardom. He has a true genuine sound that pulls you in and when it lets go, you almost wish it didn’t.
Thank goodness for the repeat button.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 26, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

‘4’-telling

In her latest, Beyonce tries on new hats while relying on old tricks

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

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3 out of 5 stars
“4”
Beyonce
Columbia Records

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Fans might be scratching their heads with Beyonce’s new album, 4. Where is the explosive power? What is it with all these ballads? But she might be having the last laugh. Her fourth solo album (duh) might not have as many potential hit singles, but by dabbling with different formulas she delivers a respectable package — or at least a fascinating one.
Beyonce has proved she can churn out major pop and R&B hits that are smart, fun and have a certain sass, but she holds back big time on 4, setting a mellower tone with a collection of slower tempo tunes.

She croons old-school on the opener “1+1,” her foray into deeper soul. The song is elegant and a surprise, but the second track, “I Care,” makes a far stronger impression. The more mid-tempo ballad is restrained in her verses, but goes way lush in her chorus. The build-up to an emotive guitar solo feels a tad Michael Bolton-ish, but pulls back to a definitive groove.

DROP DEAD DIVA | Beyonce channels ‘80s adult contemporary in ‘4,’ but delivers impressive surprises.

Beyonce slyly fuses her R&B vocals over an ambient electronica beat on “I Miss You.” Is it weird this recalls Haddaway’s 1993 song by the same name? She smartly works with the tune to offer the song as a package rather than showing off her voice and results in a lovely moment. Why she has to rhyme I miss you/like every day/wanna be wichu/but you’re away is beyond me. We get it, B — you’re street and glam.

We’re already getting the impression that she’s given the album a top-heavy atmosphere of ballads that might lose listeners, then comes “Best Thing I Never Had,” co-written by Babyface, which doesn’t dispel this. The pace is picked up slightly but the song recalls those overly polished ‘80s “soul” hits found on lite radio stations (echoed later with “Rather Die Young” and “Love on Top”). She’s channeling her Patti Austin-Regina Belle with cheesy background choruses and keyboards. Let’s not discuss the Dianne Warren penned “I Was Here,” which is ready for movie montages and hackneyed trailers.

Sometimes I wondered if Beyonce was trying to get into some serious soul a la Leela James or Sharon Jones, but kept missing the mark with these smoothed-out tunes that don’t lend much to her attempts. With previous ballads like “Halo,” “Listen” or “Irreplaceable,” we could hear her distinct voice — literally and figuratively. Here, she gets lost and although she’s co-written most of her songs, there’s not a unique sense of the diva.

As if she realized that, she pumps up the jam in the final quarter of the 12-song collection. There’s a relief when the beat-heavy “Countdown” hits at track no. 9. Although disjointed, it’s a welcome reprieve from all her emoting. She does far better with her immediate follow-up “End of Time,” by which time she seems obsessed with drumline beats. She’s pulled it since Destiny’s Child with “Breathe” and most recently with “Single Ladies,” but the horns and that Beyonce swagger we’re used to recall the infectious sounds of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.”

She weirdly placed “I Was Here” in between the happening upbeat songs and kills the mood. But she closes out with her misfired hit “Run the World (Girls).” Again with the military beats, the song didn’t take the world by storm like she probably hoped, but it puts the energy of the album in overload. I couldn’t stand hearing it at award shows or Oprah’s farewell, but after mellowing out for over half an hour, the song saves the album, ending it with a bang. The girl-power message seems passé but that doesn’t make it less fun.
I applaud Beyonce’s efforts not to deliver the obvious. Face it: We all want another “Crazy in Love,” but instead, she opted to stick to her guns and try something new, even if some of it sounded like it was three decades old. Despite its stumbles and confusing paths, 4 could be the one album we look to as her most daring.   •

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 8, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

WATCH: Brannan and Himan at The Loft

Last night’s show with Jay Brannan and Eric Himan offered a mix of oil and water. Both armed with acoustic guitars, Himan rocked the venue while Brannan soothed the almost sold-out crowd. With such a spectrum, the ovations for both were loud and blatantly appreciative.

Brannan croons like no other and he confessed onstage to being sick and vomiting the whole day prior to the show. He showed no signs of that as he sang with crystal clarity. His voice was pristine and you almost think you’re listening to a CD. He performed a healthy set also, for being so sick. “Housewife” may be his most popular song and it was well-received, but I’d have to say “Beautifully” and “Charleston,” his cover of a friend’s song, were fantastic highlights. He captured the exquisiteness of each melody nicely in both. Although his work is on the mellower side, at times the set needed a slight jolt and the ballads began to run into each other. Brannan was never tepid, but came oh-so close.

On a side note, he talked about how he loved returning to Texas as he can find really good Mexican food here. But when he cited Pappasito’s as his taco destination, we nearly choked on the ice in our drinks.

Himan, on the other hand, killed his set. With a playlist of about six songs, he took us up and down with the stirring “Protest Song” to a decent cover of Journey’s “Faithfully.” He’s a lot grittier live than he is recorded and it was a revelation. Where Brannan’s set was like a zen meditation, Himan’s bit was bombastic.

Last night was one of those special shows where the headliner met expectations nicely and the opener left a strong and exciting impression.

—  Rich Lopez

LISTEN: Dallas singer Brandon Hilton shows his ‘serious side’ with new single ‘Adrenaline’

Brandon Hilton seems to be on a roll. Just a few weeks ago, I blogged about his new video. Now, the Dallas singer is releasing his new single, “Adrenaline,” from his upcoming album Nocturnal. Not too bad from a self-made ce-web-rity. According to his e-mail sent out last night, this album will show a whole new side to Hilton. “Adrenaline” is Hilton’s first ballad which he figures will show his more artistic side.

“People were complaining because all I usually create is fun dance music, well my new album isn’t like that, I’m showing my serious side as a serious artist,” his e-mail states.

Personally, I’m not really sure an “artist” would bow to pressures of people complaining. Hey Hilton, if you don’t wanna do ballads, don’t. “Adrenaline” is a decent effort with just enough going right and wrong to balance it out. Overall, the tune is simple but I have to say, it hooked me. I mean, it’s auto-tuned to hell and a little cliche in the lyrics department, but it works well enough.

And we’re all in agreement here that Hilton provided one of the best lines ever in his press release. According to the e-mail, when he was asked about Nocturnal, he said — get ready for it — “this is all I will say, this album is about my death as an Internet Celebrity, and my birth as an Artist!”

So priceless.

Listen to “Adrenaline” here

—  Rich Lopez

Tickling ivories

Eric Himan trades his guitar for a piano to revisit his musical catalog

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer lopez@dallasvoice.com

3 out of 5 stars
OUT WITH THE OLD
Eric Himan
Thumbcrown

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Proof that Eric Himan has an astounding amount of determination is found in his new CD, Out with the Old. Himan challenged himself to learn the piano and then reinterpreted some of his own tunes into an altogether different sound on this collection of 12 songs — 11 covers of his own stuff and one new track. The results are a valiant effort that, even with some lulls, comes out on top.

He recorded the album live, though not in front of an audience. Instead, these takes were captured at his piano instructor’s home. This approach works nicely and conveys a strange intimacy, though sometimes he would have benefited from adjusted levels of his voice and piano.

Opening with “Until the Road Unwinds,” Himan gives no hint that he’s a piano novice. He must have magic hands because his work here is sublime. The ballad starts off the CD slowly, but opens up the mind and ear quickly to his new sound. The song itself holds up well in this interpretation, but immediately we hear that while Himan can play nicely, he doesn’t show off. The CD is a bold move, but Himan knows he isn’t Billy Joel — yet. Although if that’s the direction he’s headed it, it’s not a bad one.

Eric Himan
TOTALLY VERSATILE | Tulsa-based Eric Himan makes a bold move by stepping away from the guitar to show off his new piano skills in ‘Out with the Old.’

Then “White Horse” happens. Despite showing shades of Jerry Lee Lewis, Himan misses here, and badly. The lyrics feel rushed as if he’s squeezing in words to fit the rhythm. On its own, the song is the equivalent of ill-fitting shoes, losing the rockabilly fun from its original form. Himan needs to master the pace between the piano and his faster songs.

But on his slower tunes and ballads, the music shines. “Clyde” plays with tenderness and he works the keys in both complex and moody fashions. Then we start hearing him stretching out his vocal runs as if the new translation is setting him free. He’s not only putting his piano playing to the test, but his voice as well.

This continues on “Kinda Hard.” He can handle the instrument for these steadier tunes but his earnestness is etched into the song. When he sings the line, I mean nothing to you, nothing sounded more painful. “One Less Person” and “One Night Stand” fare the same beautiful fate with share the right delicacy and proper musical approach. You could say this album is a bit narcissistic if he just wants to show off what he’s learned, but if it’s gonna sound like this all the time, then by all means, show off.

The original track “Gonna Make it Work,” somehow misses all the marks. Himan starts intently but he begins to ramble. The song builds to an uneven chorus. Himan has a uniquely high-pitched voice but he needed to downshift registers here — either that or slow the song down.

It’s unfortunate to end on a sloppy note, because up to this point, the albums play with nice cohesion regardless of its couple of stumbles. But props to Himan for trying something new — at the very least, it keeps him interesting, and listeners interested.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 12, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens