Bitter to Sweet
There are so many second-generation musicians following in the family business that it gets easy to be cynical about it. But it's not like their parents own a company that can be handed over when Mom or Dad retires. It's more like they're the kids of Mafia bosses, sucked into the life and given preferential treatment because nobody wants to piss off the person with power. For every Jakob Dylan there is an Emma Townshend. The last name may get the record deal, but it doesn't ensure success.
Which is why Julian Coryell's first foray into pop/rock is so intriguing. Coryell is the son of jazz guitarist Larry and a highly acclaimed jazz guitarist in his own right. Ten years ago no less an authority than Down Beat magazine proclaimed him "Outstanding Soloist" or some other useless award. After making a trio of jazz records and touring with his father, Coryell has stepped into the larger arena of rock. He has said that he wanted to play jazz, partially to please his father, but that he can't help but write for the mainstream.
Coryell's Bitter to Sweet is reminiscent of the debut of another son of a popular musician, Jeff Buckley's Grace -- a comparison not made lightly. Both records have grandiose, sweeping songs with theatrical arrangements and bombastic production, and each is characterized by the way both singers reach notes high and low and control their voices to the breath. But where Buckley seems to have a love for lounge-jazz, Coryell seems to enjoy the Beatles-inspired British pop of bands like XTC.
The ambition of Bitter is charming because it mostly succeeds. If the songs and performances were terrible, the record would just seem pretentious. Coryell's confidence seems to stem from a combination of youthful bluster and genuine talent. Not a bad combination. Coupled with the fact that the majority of the tracks were recorded live and Niko Bolas's (Neil Young, Circle Jerks) expansive and intimate production can harness attitude, you're looking at (and hearing) a pretty ballsy record with the goods to back up the aspiration. For starters, take the title of "You Couldn't Leave Me If You Tried." The loudest track on the record, "You Couldn't Leave Me" rotates on the twin axis of swampy guitar and a little Farfisa organ, as Coryell bluffs his way into keeping a paramour. But the sunshine melody of the chorus tips his hand; he's not that tough.
Elsewhere, as on "Cheat," Coryell acts the badass more convincingly, even as he allows hints of jazz composition and complexity to color his delivery. Over nothing more than a muted, crunchy guitar intro, Coryell offers to wall up a lover, making it sound like an affectionate proposition. When the band kicks in, a swirling, shifting almost world-beat rhythm with pinched guitar notes circling it takes over. The song shifts to a drawn-out, mighty minibridge (in which Coryell proclaims himself a cheat) then to a driving, power-pop four-on-the-floor stomp at the chorus -- minus a big sing-along hook -- and back again without stumbling or losing intensity. Credit the big-handed drumming of Tom Curiano for keeping the passion, not necessarily the volume, constant. The sections of the song interlock and overlap without losing the organic feel of three guys jamming in a room.
Of course, what makes Bitter to Sweet and Coryell so impressive is the range of emotions and textures prevalent. He doesn't just brag about people who won't leave him or that he treats badly. It always comes back to bite him in the ass. "Nothing Left to Use" offers a quiet, string-laden acoustic guitar meditation on being broke, financially and spiritually. Coryell may be a Berklee-trained guitarist, but it is his voice that is constantly the first thing you notice. He sounds older and more wistful than a guy in his mid-twenties feeling sorry for himself; he sounds hopeless. With smooth control he soars and softly moans, and, like Buckley, he possesses a falsetto that can pierce the skin.
Even on the songs on Bitter that aren't so great, his voice is worth hearing. "Song for Cynics" is a little waltz that finds Coryell expressing his most youthful and naive ideas (that people should do their part to make the world a better place, blah, blah, blah). He really tears into it, though, getting his voice to jump up higher and higher until he's no longer in the song, but above it. He doesn't quite salvage it but makes it more than bearable.
-- David Simutis
It wouldn't be fair to say that of all the artists hip-hop/R&B producing madman Timbaland has worked with over the years (Aaliyah, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliot, himself), he does his best work with only one performer. But it always seems like his most powerful stuff comes out when laying down tracks for his crooning protege Ginuwine. The studly, rubber-limbed performer was the first to reap benefits from Timbaland's creative wizardry on the former's 1996 debut, Ginuwine... The Bachelor. And with his second album, 100% Ginuwine, Timbaland once again accompanies the young troubadour and churns out a fierce, endlessly satisfying album.
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On 100%, the two combine with peerless synergy as Ginuwine pours his honey-dripping vocals all over Timbaland's seismic beats. The result is an album full of rhythmic unpredictability that is damn near free of the connect-the-dots familiarity that accentuates most of today's R&B. And Ginuwine continues to serve his duty as a young black bachelor with wicked charisma. "None of Ur Friends Business" and "Wait a Minute" are two back-to-back numbers that have Ginuwine persuading his lady not to listen to her meddling friends. "Final Warning" teams Ginuwine with Aaliyah as they kvetch about cheating amid Timbaland's madhouse grooves. "Do You Remember" is the most tongue-in-cheek of the tracks, what with Ginuwine making a late-night creep to the bedroom of a tender young freakazoid. ("Remember what we did last night / We boned on your momma's couch and we knocked the springs right out.")
Just like Aaliyah on her One in a Million album, Ginuwine serves up lyrics with the sincerity of a teen pop star. But under Timbaland's arranging thumb, the songs are turned into erotically charged crowd pleasers, tunes that are so soulfully frisky in their delivery ("So Anxious" has enough slink to walk down a flight of stairs), you accept them with a straight face. Just think, if acne-free teen performers Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync or Britney Spears had Timbaland in their corners, they'd be taken so seriously. They would sound that much better.
100% is awfully close to a perfect R&B album. So what stops it from achieving total perfection? The album's big climax, of course. Ginuwine redoes Michael Jackson's sappy classic "She's Out of My Life" and ends up making it even sappier. (He puts in all the sniffles and everything.) Fortunately, Timbaland has nothing to do with that particular number. But he should have. After hearing an album full of delicious, Timbaland-enhanced tracks, an ending like that just seems cruel.
-- Craig D. Lindsey