By BRUCE DENNILL
Dr Victor: I Believe In Love 4
Planetshakers: Overflow 5.5
Various Artists: The Greatest Showman – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack 8
Bruno Mars: XXIVK Magic 6
Dr Victor is one of the most durable live acts in the South African industry, and he’s remained active and successful by consistently pleasing mainstream audiences with both the choice of his material and the way he performs it. This inevitably makes his music very low-risk in terms if the arrangements and sounds he favours – no bad thing in itself, though predictability is an unavoidable by-product of such an approach. As such, except for covers of standards such as Happy Together, Drift Away and Electric Avenue, the rhythms and rhymes of the album – taken as a whole – rather meld together. This is not helped by the widespread use of autotune on the singer’s voice, which further flattens out any colour and passion Dr Victor – an excellent performer live – is able to add. The title track is a friendly pop single and the overall production lends itself to that platform, which is an eminently sensible strategy. But these recordings lack the energy of Dr Victor’s concerts, and the album should perhaps only be considered as a stop-gap for fans between shows.
Sonically, Australian worship outfit Planetshakers lives up to its name on this album – packed with dance beats, synths and throbbing bass, this is the sort of thing that, if your neighbour was playing it loudly, would cause you to grumble about “the youth of today” like someone who still shudders at the thought of church council meetings including members who don’t own a blazer. That youth-focused approach is consistent throughout, even in the quieter tracks such as I Know Who You Are. It’s evident in many of the lyrics used: “It’s the greatest feeling when You fill this place in this moment” (Come Right Now); “You’re my breakthrough” (River); “I bring my energy and passion, You’re worthy of nothing less” (Give My All); “I’m out in the open with emptied hands” (Face To Face) – all experiential and focused on the worshipper’s encounter with God rather than the nature of He who is being worshipped. That seeker-sensitive approach is works well to a point – particularly when supported by the less aggressively club-friendly arrangements on show in I Came For You, Sings My Soul and others – and certainly creates an upbeat, joyful atmosphere in which believers can open up and let rip in their own rights. In terms of its use as a teaching tool, the meandering on and off (Biblical) message is problematic, but the bands’ chops – this complex music is recorded live – make these songs musical pointers to important truths.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for the soundtrack of The Greatest Showman as a standalone album is to match the unalloyed joy it engenders when combined with the colours and choreography of the film. The scale of the production – everything soars, from the orchestrations to the stadium-sized reverb – gives the songs the launchpad they need, doing most of the job in closing that gap, and it’s only the relatively short tracklisting (the 11 songs include two reprises) that somewhat stymies the completion of the whole job. The songs are superbly crafted for their context, with songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul already veterans of soundtracks and and scores including La La Land and and Dear Evan Hansen. Everything works well, though, where the songs play a more expositional role in the film, they are merely very good indeed. Where they can stand without that context and feel like part of the life stories of whichever emotionally vulnerable singer is taking them on at the time, they are sublime. A Million Dreams is a good bar-setter, but it is simply blown away by the power of Never Enough (singer Loren Allred is the only lead vocalist featured who was not part of the film’s cast, and her all-in performance shows the wisdom of including her here) and This Is Me, which is the strongest argument possible for writing mainstream songs that are both complex and edifying, rather than superficial in every sense. The cast prove themselves impressively capable singers, removing any validity in questions about replacing the actors with full-time singers for the soundtrack. Hugh Jackman has long-established credentials as a Broadway triple-threat, and The Greatest Show and From Now On, which bookend the collection are fine examples of his capacity as a leading man in the studio as well as on screen, with the latter requiring some tricky low-register work. Zac Efron and Zendaya, who also have plenty of singing in their CVs, make Rewrite The Stars powerfully emotive, and Michelle Williams gives convincing vocal performances in both A Million Dreams and Tightrope. This is a brilliant collection the first time you hear it. And most, if not all, of the songs will join the existing canon of tunes from great musicals.
Notwithstanding the Hugh Hefner-goes-sailing pyjamas he’s wearing on the cover and the decision to begin the title track and opener with out-and-proud Autotune, it’s impossible, halfway into that first tune, to deny Bruno Mars his place as perhaps the smoothest man in music and the heir apparent to a number of soul and R&B superstars, from Stevie Wonder to Michael Jackson. He remains smuttier than either of those, with his lyrics hardly likely to win him any awards for chivalry, but that’s the package he’s chosen to present, and he does it well. Early on, 24k Magic and Perm offer the super-slick, energetic pop-funk that makes Mars a radio staple. Later, That’s What I Like starts a succession of velvety R&B panty-droppers that, designed as they are to be the soundtrack to sultriness, don’t actually translate particularly well as music to simply listen to – without a romantic agenda. That said, in performance terms, there’s much to gawp about, with a phrase early on in Versace On The Floor being so evocative of Stevie Wonder that it might have been lifted from a time when the revered elder artist had the same crystal-clear high range that Mars does now. And the singing in general deserves praise: Mars, like Kelly Clarkson and a few others who know that their voices will deliver, is not afraid of writing in keys that require him to put maximum effort into his vocals. Finesse suggests a nod towards Terence Trent D’Arby, another possible precursor of the Mars sound before closer Too Good To Say Goodbye wonders a little too close to the melody line of the Lutricia McNeal hit Ain’t That Just The Way for comfort, even if the intent is to continue to pay homage to a genre that Mars is otherwise taking forward. In general, XXIVK Magic is oddly one-paced, thematically and musically. Sublime chops redeem it to some degree, but Mars has done and will do better.