Is There Anybody Out There?, by A Great Big World
The competition show So You Think You Can Dance? has popularized — or maybe resuscitated — a particularly maudlin strain of pop that it uses when dancers are performing what the show refers to as “contemporary” dance: think extended erotic embraces, liquid body movements and lots of flowing tulle. The music they often choose for these routines is spare, generally with piano, overlaid with cloying vocals that have pluck but not power. The goal is to create a stark backdrop over which the dancers can emote without interference, a verdant field that’s actually bare.
Last year, Say Something by A Great Big World was one of those songs, used to good effect but still essentially anonymous. But then, in an unlikely turn, it caught the attention of Christina Aguilera, who invited the duo — Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino — to re-record it with her. That version reached No 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, opening the pipestream of twee to come.
And oh, does twee reign on Is There Anybody Out There?, this duo’s painfully executed major-label debut album. Like a starter folk album, it’s gentle and plain-spoken and free of any artifice. And also dull. Axel especially has a grating voice with no color, almost digital in its simplicity. And lyrically, the duo is clumsy, approaching musical theater at their best, and rarely even that — Shorty Don’t Wait is the sort of song Jason Mraz would toss for being too simple. Land of Opportunity and the dim empowerment anthem Everyone Is Gay land with the blunt-force good cheer of a Dan Zanes children’s album. Occasionally, A Great Big World only ends up suggesting better options: Rockstar has purposeful echoes of Vanessa Carlton’s A Thousand Miles, a far better piano-pop tune, and also of Billy Joel’s signature stop-start piano revving.
Last month, Say Something ended up on another reality show, The X Factor, sung by the show’s eventual winners Alex & Sierra, a button-cute duo with occasional bursts of intense vocals. The lyrics are still limp, but their delivery forgoes some of the restraint of the original, and even the contrived dignity of Aguilera’s version. Theirs is the version worth seeking out.
— Jon Caramanica, NY Times News Service
Ah!, by Linnea Olsson
Swedish songwriter Linnea Olsson’s debut album, Ah!, is a thoroughly solo production. Her voice and her cello are the only sounds she uses for nearly the entire album; and now and then she might whistle or clap her hands. Her lone collaborator plays hand drum on just one song, Ah! — the one where she sings, “I have been alone for so many days.”
That doesn’t mean the music is austere. Using overdubs, loops and echoes, Olsson multiplies her voice — or more accurately voices, since she can sound elfin, breathy, forthright and confiding. And with the cello she constructs string orchestras, while using pizzicato, tapping the bow on the strings or knocking on the cello body to give herself a rhythm section.
Olsson sings about falling in and out of love, about bliss and longing. “I was helpless as I walked toward you/I was talking nonsense/I got dizzy when I looked into your eye-eye-eye-eye-eyes,” she sings in All 4 U, building her voice into two anti-phonal choirs and stacking her cello parts into an arrangement that pushes constantly even as it sits on one chord. In Guilt, she starts out confessing, “Ooh, it hurts/It hurts so much I want to cry” over nothing but stark, bowed doublestops; later, a contrapuntal cello melody becomes her companion in loneliness.