By BRUCE DENNILL
Jason Mraz: Yes! 7.5
Andrew Kay – One For The Road 7
Ed Sheeran: X – Wembley Edition 7
Evolver One: What If 6
It’s a truism that cheerful music is annoying, with the perceived lack of reality in themes and lyrics aggravating listeners who have constant challenges and can’t stand the fact that someone else has so few serious issues that they can write and record a whole album of grin-laden melodies. Jason Mraz has made a career of proving to such pessimistic people that there’s beauty and value around if you look for it and, though his arrangements on Yes! are simpler and his lyrics less wordy than on some of his previous material, his chin-up attitude remains intact. The relative straightforwardness of the instrumental aspects is odd given that this collection is a collaboration with indie folk band Raining Jane, a female quartet with Dixie Chick-level musicianship. They’re all multi-instrumentalists and, given Mraz’s own prodigious talents, the expectation might have been that every space in the mix would be packed with some artfully strummed, plucked or prodded apparatus. The elegant emptiness plays into the collaborative songwriting, which occasionally features unmistakable Mraz flourishes (the verse in Long Drive, for instance, couldn’t be anyone else) but just as often takes his template and adds freshness and creative new ideas. The tracklisting hands together well, partly because of shared, positive themes (Best Friend features the line, “Thank you for all of your trust; thank you for not giving up,” and later Rely On Me sees that favour returned) and partly because the gentle hooks slowly work their way in until you’re held fast. Love Someone; Hello, You Beautiful Thing; Best Friend and Everywhere are the best of a very good bunch. The Mraz-Raining Jane collaboration is a long-running one and Yes! underlines that it’s one that should continue, for everyone’s benefit.
Nelspruit singer-songwriter Andrew Kay’s idea was to record his songs unembellished, as a permanent version of his solo live set, so that fans could take the experience of watching him home with them. Bar the occasional unobtrusive overdub, he’s done just that, and One For The Road reflects a gift for folk storytelling that recalls the esteemed likes of Robin Auld and David Kramer. Easy Living In The New SA is very evocative of the latter, complete with occasional passages sung with an Afrikaans accent. The album begins with a much more thoughtful number, with Lay Down Your Arms likely usually positioned towards the end of Kay’s live set, when the crowd is mellow and open for a bit of musing. Come Back Home and Rosy are also gentle, reflective tunes, and complete a notable opening trio. The occasional studio noises – a button being pushed at the beginning of All Over Again, for instance – add authenticity to the listening experience, rather than being something to nitpick about (much ProTools-processed mainstream mush would benefit form a similar injection of heart). Other than some first-class guitar playing and singing, One For The Road is a showcase of old-fashioned musical yarn-spinning, with Bobby being a sad tribute to a much-loved, damaged friend and Medals being a Dylan-esque contemplation on trying to make the most of life. This is a valuable record of a considerable talent that otherwise might not be valued outside of the region in which he operates geographically.
Ed Sheeran’s not much for stereotypes. Relatively softly-spoken gingers are usually higher on the school thug’s “To Bully” list than they are on world music charts. And acoustic guitars are hardly staples on the stages in arenas, never mind Wembley Stadium. What Sheeran wants, Sheeran does, though, and the results speak for themselves, giving him the scope to include affable acoustic fare like I See Fire and to being an unlikely stand-in for Pharrell or Justin Timberlake on the funk-and-falsetto strut of Sing at the end of the set. Like those artists, one of the cornerstones of Sheeran’s performance style is confidence, oozing out of every note, even when the lyrical themes include doubt and disappointment, as in the bass-driven Don’t. Sheeran switches between a sort of rap-sung narration style that allows him to cover a lot of ground thematically and a more conventional vocal style built for the infusion of emotion, as on the popular Photograph. His appeal beyond the music is just as adaptable, with a natural, apparently guileless charm countered by a worldliness and willingness to talk about it expressed in lines like, “Couple women by my side, I got sinning on my mind, sipping on red wine, how’d I get so faded?” in Bloodstream, or “I’ve never seen my dad cry, cold as stone in the kitchen light,” in the funky Runaway. What has lifted Sheeran to the level he is now, though, is transparently good songwriting, and there is no better example of that than his biggest hit so far, the soulful Thinking Out Loud, which he nails here, his voice straining to hit the high notes, with the effort adding feeling to his delivery. Momentum is sustained to the end of this deluxe edition of X with the inclusion of English Rose, Touch And Go and New York. Great album plus milestone stadium performance equals great value.
This album title What If is, in some ways, a summation of the career of Evolver One, a pop-rock outfit with all the components for mainstream success – a feel for strong hooks, superior musicianship, dedication and accessibility both musically and personally – and yet have never been appreciated at that level. This is the first album with vocalist and guitarist Leslie Dart, who is a robust presence behind the mic, more direct than his predecessor in the role, Peter Pote, who had the edge in X-factor rock star presence. Keyboard player Sean Murphy dominates the soundscapes the band create, filling all the gaps with cleverly arranged, often brawny synth effects and melody lines. He and Dart are kept in check by Tulsa Pittaway’s propulsive drumming. Opener Tell Me is catchy single material, with the title track adding a minor key and Killers-style synths to make for a convincing statement of intent. Club-friendly rhythms widen the potential audience for Start A Fire and Don’t Have To Run. The only real criticisim worth applying throughout is that – and this may be down to Evolver One being a three-piece and thus having limited scope in terms of varying the sounds and arrangements they’re able to use – while there are aspects of each song that stand out as unique, there are also aspects that sound distractingly familiar. A wider palette of lyrical themes may help – everything else is in place.