Clay Aiken’s album: “a deep-fried Snickers bar” or songs that show “nuance and restraint”?

On the occasion of the release of American Idol 2 runner-up Clay Aiken’s third record, reality blurred asked two people to review it: Michelle C., a longtime Clay Aiken fan, and Eric S., a music afficianado. Previously, they briefly reviewed his first single. Since then, they’ve each had a chance to listen to and then review his full album, A Thousand Different Ways.

What’s most interesting to me is that, while they’re both coming from very different directions, they both basically agree: Clay’s talented, but an album full of covers was a mistake. Here are their full reviews:

“Clay’s vocal performances show nuance and restraint” by Michelle C.

September 19 saw the release of new CDs by my two favorite musical artists, and what a study in contrast: one is critical darling Joseph Arthur (Nuclear Daydream) and the other is critical whipping boy Clay Aiken (A Thousand Different Ways). The frustration of being a Joseph Arthur fan is that he is so little-known, even among indie-music fans, and he deserves to be heard. The frustration of being a Clay fan is that many people think they know him, and what he is capable of, and yet they have no idea. Clay’s first two CDs did not fully capture the amazing voice that we’ve heard in concert—his controlled, pitch-perfect voice that requires no pro-tooling, his beautiful tone, his amazing range of almost two and a half octaves, the variety of musical genres he can perform, or his charismatic energy while performing. How many musical artists sound better live than on CD?

When we learned that most of the original songs on Clay’s much-anticipated third CD were scrapped by a covers-happy Clive Davis (who has found cash cows in Rod Stewart’s and Barry Manilow’s covers CDs, among others), many of Clay’s fans were disappointed. How can an American Idol alumnus escape the “karaoke” label if he is not allowed to produce more original material? Clay is a young man at the beginning of his career, as well as being a proven platinum seller. News that the 10 covers on the CD included treacly and overplayed songs by Richard Marx and Celine Dion did not help. When would Clay be given the creative freedom to record something unexpected or musically complex? Were assumptions being made about Clay’s fans’ musical tastes or Clay’s abilities?

On my first listen to ATDW, those disappointments were amplified for me with some of the production choices, including overblown, or too similar, instrumentation on some of the songs. However, Clay’s vocal performances show nuance and restraint; for example, the tender “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word” shows that bombast and glory-noting are not all that Clay is capable of (a common critic’s complaint). Some completely re-arranged covers bring new life to the songs, such as Clay’s slowed-down, sultry version of Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again.” A beautifully crafted, haunting “Broken Wings” features a spoken-word poem (by Erin Taylor) that enriches the song, and even changes its original meaning, by creating a conversation between lovers.

There are also four original songs on the CD, including the catchy “Lonely No More,” which features Clay’s first songwriting credit, and the relatively uptempo (in a CD full of ballads) “A Thousand Days,” which I prefer in Clay’s live performances. Although ATDW has grown on me with multiple listens (let’s face it— I love listening to Clay sing), I’m still waiting for the CD that will really show what Clay is capable of. However, there are two songs that come close, and they are, ironically, not officially on this CD. The K-Mart version of ATDW comes with a download of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” that features Clay riffing and wailing on some green-eyed soul. The real find, though, is the bonus track on the iTunes version of ATDW, “Lover All Alone” (lyrics by Clay, music by David Foster). The instrumentation is spare and gorgeous, Clay’s voice is at the right place in the mix, and the lyrics are poignant. I am thrilled to know that Clay can write such a heartfelt, beautiful song, and I am hopeful that he will be given this level of artistic freedom and quality production in the future.

“the man who made himself famous by covering pop songs doesn’t even pander with well-chosen music” by Eric S.

Late in August at the Minnesota State Fair, I ponied up $3 for one of the newer food items on the greasy-food-on-a-stick circuit: the deep-fried Snickers bar. Think corn dog but with melted chocolate and nougat in place of the frankfurter. There’s really no way this thing could taste bad, I think. So I dive in and after the first bite, it’s pretty good. Even after the second, I’m still hanging in there. But somewhere in between bites three and four, things start to go horribly wrong: The chocolate mess is dripping down my wrists, the powdered sugar coating is all over my face, and I feel like I’m going to vomit.

Clay Aiken’s latest album, A Thousand Different Ways is a deep-fried Snickers bar.

I’ll be completely honest here: before listening to this album, I was not a Clay Aiken fan. But, being a voracious consumer of all music, pop and not, I pressed the play button for track one with an open mind. And then, almost immediately, things start to go horribly wrong: Clay covers Richard Marx. There are really only three reasons to cover any pop song: 1. To pay tribute to the original artist (Hendrix doing “All Along the Watchtower”), 2. To be ironic (punk bands covering Madonna or the Wiggles) or 3. To pander to your audience (Clay Aiken). But amazingly, the man who made himself famous by covering pop songs doesn’t even pander with well-chosen music. There is no reason to sing tunes already proven to be not-timeless by the likes of Foreigner, Rob Thomas, Bryan Adams and Celine Dion. Then to make matters worse, you pair a poor song selection with a backing band who I’m convinced is the robot quintet from Chuck E. Cheese.

The producers try to salvage their dull piano and synthy drums by layering in some pseudo-dramatic strings, but this feels forced. “Right Here Waiting” gives us a guitar player who had to be rolling his eyes for 4 minutes straight. “Everything I Do” starts with what I think is a pan flute then punches it up with some seriously bad 80s kick drummin’. The robo-band goes on and on until this cavalcade of mediocrity stumbles towards final track: “Broken Wings” by that titan of soft-rock songwriting, Mr. Mister. In case the rumbling African congas and Clay’s increasingly dramatic singing didn’t let you know how intense this musical moment is, there is a woman whispering to you in the background saying, essentially, “you should feel moved now.”

Despite all of this, there are, while rare, moments of fairly decent pop on this album, all in the original tracks. I genuinely like “A Thousand Days” where Clay shows us he’s got real rocker-vocalist chops. Even the strings work here, especially during the “November Rain”-esque bridge near the end. Then on the quieter “Everything I Have,” the drum machines are turned down and Clay’s biggest strength, his vocals, are, at last, done justice.

As for the rest of the album, sure, you’ll find yourself belting out the choruses on some of the classics of 80s one-hit-wonderdom. I was listening to “When I See You Smile” on Highway 94 in Wisconsin at 1 a.m., and the truckers next to me would have beaten me with their 72 oz long haulin’ coffee mugs if they heard the white-boy sing-a-long that was happening in my car. But there was absolutely no reason for that song to exist, and singing it made me feel dirty. Bad English released this track in 1989 and it should have been retired then along with all the other power ballads from that decade. The same is true for all the other cover tunes on the album which had no right to be re-interpreted. Clay Aiken has some talent, but “A Thousand Ways” is like Superman using his x-ray vision to peer through the wall of a dressing room at the Gap. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

With the original tracks on this album, Clay shows us he can sing songs with some pop music legitimacy. But, if he continues to release terribly produced cover songs about love and smiling, he’s going to be sitting in a lounge in Vegas in 10 years with Celine, Richard, Bryan, etc. thinking about the thousand ways he went wrong.

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