Music Reviews: Stoned On Oxygen, Or The Beauty Of Innocence

September 8, 2016

By BRUCE DENNILL

 

Angus & Julia Stone: Angus & Julia Stone             6.5

Neville D: Beauty Of Difference                               6

Lincoln Brewster: Oxygen                                         6

U2: Songs Of Innocence                                            5.5

 

A guy-girl partnership creating heartfelt alternative tunes that don’t aim for commercial acceptance but have a melodic core. And Rick Rubin’s name in the credits as producer suggesting that Angus and Julia Stone might be as important and enjoyable as the White Stripes or the Civil Wars – this should be a debut worth paying attention to. It is – but only to a degree. The duo lack the White Stripes’ feral energy or the Civil Wars’ sublime musicality, and because they’re aiming left of centre to begin with, this collection doesn’t qualify as easy listening (even given the indistinct boundaries of that hold-all genre). There’s some wonderful production, with Grizzly Bear’s intro groove enveloping the listener like a Dire Straits hit. There’s a similar mix of luxuriant arrangements and slightly offhand vocal phasing on Heart Beats Slow, before Wherever You Are, an atmospheric, picked guitar and breathed vocals ballad provides – atypical as it is – an album highlight. It’s followed by another – Get Home, on which Angus takes the lead vocal, channelling Caleb Followill to make the song sound like a sleeper hit for Kings Of Leon. The latter epithet is true of Little Whiskey. Julia Stone has the same sort of little-girl vocal tone as Leigh Nash, but a tendency to over-stylise some of her phrasing makes the songs on which she takes the lead vocal some of the more difficult tunes to get into. That said, those songs – and everything on the album, for that matter – do reveal more and more allure as you give them time to unpack themselves in your headphones, so it’s worth going back to this collection regularly to look for something new to appreciate.

 

An energetic and charismatic performer and worship leader, Neville Diedericks brings his stage dynamism into the studio, making this collection of contemporary worship a lively, on-your-feet affair. In some ways, that may distract from his very clear believer’s message, as the alternatively club- or R&B-style arrangements don’t make for easy congregational interaction. Not all worship music needs to suit those listening to it, and the musicianship and complex compositions are often impressive in terms of their execution and production. Ready To Go, featuring Brian Temba, has a swelling R&B groove and Our God Is Awesome, featuring the ubiquitous Loysio Bala and Ntokozo Mbambo recalls the emotive call-and-response style of Kirk Franklin. Later, the title track is bass-propelled aural syrup that could be delivered as effectively by some R&B crooner (think Maxwell or D’Angelo) as it is by the more ascetic Diedericks, made even more attractive by its valuable theme. Perhaps the autotune on closer Like Fire is a misstep, but by then, you’ll have had plenty to enjoy.

 

Lincoln Brewster is a first-rate, potentially the closest thing CCM might have to a secular artist like John Mayer. On Oxygen, however, he has, to some degree, buried the sound of his Stratocaster in compact pop arrangements that are closer to those appreciated by the youthful fans of the likes of Katy Perry and One Republic. There Is Power deftly combines that chart appeal with the clear, simple message of a good praise tune, while On Our Side is as anthemic as many of the aforementioned One Republic’s hits and also marks the first time in the collection that Brewster allows himself a solo. You Never Stop is one of the songs on the album that, though there’s nothing wrong with it per se, is frustrating because of the gap between Brewster’s technical ability and what has made it onto the record. There’s a quick strum pattern and a perky melody, but he’s capable of much more on both counts, as shown by the next song, Let It Be Known, which is no less mainstream, but which has a huge, air-punching hook and some interesting licks woven into a driving rhythm. Ballad Whole Again takes a different tack, built around a spare piano line and building to a satisfying crescendo in a worship-style refrain, before Shout It Out closes proceedings with a bubbly bounce-and-clap feel. Oxygen is tight and well-made, but Brewster has delivered better before, and admirers of his superior musicianship will hope he permits himself more space to show that off next time around.

 

Having been foisted on iTunes listeners whether they wanted it or not, this collection, spread across two discs (to allow for a 22-minute acoustic session on the second) emerged with a flush of notoriety. But being known about and being appreciated – as U2 found out to the cost of their reputation – are two significantly different things. To some degree, the opening trio of songs (The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone), Every Breaking Wave and California (There Is No End To Love)) sound like a band trying to sound like U2 and doing a reasonably good job. The elements are there – Edge’s trademark guitar distortion sounds; Bono’s earnest wail – but the songs come and go without the hooks really digging in. Song For Someone is better, from its first line, “You got a face not spoiled by beauty” to its slow-building dynamics. Volcano features an Eighties feel keyboards and its falsetto chorus, while Sleep Like A Baby Tonight also includes falsetto, but right at the top of Bono’s range and thus rather thin. These, and other songs on the collection, create a paradox for listeners who have ever had an opinion on U2’s music: there are moments that remind you why the band became both so popular and so influential alongside other moments – too many – that it’s the same band that recorded Achtung Baby and Zooropa, bravely heading off in new destinations and convincing fans to follow them. Songs Of Innocence nods to contemporary chart fodder in the R&B-ish wash of its production, but otherwise, for the most part, fails to innovate (not an issue, per se, but something that U2 have primed their fans to expect) or, more problematically, to compel. Acoustic Sessions, a single track containing alternative versions of Every Breaking Wave, California, Raised By Wolves, Cedarwood Road, Song For Someone and The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) is by a distance the most enjoyable part of album. Had all the songs been recorded and released like this, where what strengths there are a more obvious and emotion in the performances feels more authentic, this album might have been better received. Producer Danger Mouse may be out of a job next time if that happens, but on this evidence, U2 can overcome the marketing obstacles they’ve put in their own path by sticking to the basics.

 

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