Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity
Post Rock Archive  |  About the Bloggers  |  E-mail: Click Track  |  On Twitter: Click Track  |  RSS Feeds RSS
Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 11/16/2010

Album review: Josh Groban, "Illuminations"

By Allison Stewart

josh groThe seemingly odd pairing of Josh Groban and producer Rick Rubin makes sense. (Charles Sykes/AP)

Why didn't it come along sooner, this pairing of popera icon Josh Groban and mythical music guy Rick Rubin? Sure, it might seem strange at first. Groban is a likably nerdy man-boy with a steamroller of a voice and a fondness for Big: All of his songs seem born to be sung from mountaintops. Rubin is a producer and all-purpose musical messiah who found a winning formula with Johnny Cash's "American Recordings" (austerity + more austerity = authenticity) and has stuck with it ever since.

Rubin specializes in stripping away the fluff; Groban has, until now, been composed almost entirely of fluff. On Groban's relatively brave and frequently adorable fifth studio disc, "Illuminations," they tackle a fascinating question: How much ornamentation, how much pomp, can be subtracted from a Josh Groban album and have it still be a Josh Groban album?
"Illuminations" doesn't come close to finding out. It turns out that stripped-down for Groban is not stripped-down for most people, and "Illuminations" tempers, but does not do away with, his familiar touchstones: the swelling orchestras, the outsize vocals.

Slightly more contemporary than Groban's last non-holiday disc, 2006's "Awake," and slightly less . . . everything else, "Illuminations" isn't a revelation, but it offers a perfectly fine, and often quite lovely, glimpse at a pop-classical crossover artist in the middle of crossing over.

Big pop piano ballads such as "Higher Window" and "Hidden Away" (which, like many tracks here, Groban co-wrote with Semisonic frontman-turned-hit-songwriter Dan Wilson) are characteristic of "Illuminations" in general: Gorgeous, slightly puffed up, less inspirational than is Groban's wont, they're just different enough to seem mildly daring but not enough to be off-putting.


"Illuminations" feels like a record at war with itself, locked in a battle between Big and Bigger, between the Wilson tracks, which tend to be less mountainous, and predictably lush string ballads such as "Galileo" and "Bells of New York City." The biggest numbers, such as the Italian language chest-thumper "L'Ora Dell' Addio" and a cover of the Rufus Wainwright-Kate McGarrigle song "Au Jardin Des Sans-Pourquoi" scarcely bear Rubin's touch at all.

The disc's modified fripperies are probably necessary. Groban's voice is too immense to be shoehorned into a conventional pop album; he can't get any smaller without sounding thwarted and ridiculous. Rubin's only hope of novelty lies in making small songs bigger, which explains why "Illuminations" ends with a grand orchestral cover of Nick Cave's '92 sea-shanty ballad "Straight to You."

Its beating-heart-simulating percussion may be overly literal, but it's otherwise a doozy of track, which finds Cave and Groban united in their fondness for dark romantic overstatement ("For the sea will swallow up the mountains / And the sky will throw thunderbolts and sparks"). It's "Illumination's" best track, but only its second-most-interesting meeting of the minds.

Recommended tracks: "Bells of New York City," "Galileo," "Straight to You"

By Allison Stewart  | November 16, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Album reviews  | Tags:  Josh Groban  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Singles file: J. Cole, Secret Mountains, Laura Marling, Girls, jj
Next: Album review: Rihanna, "Loud"

Comments

I must take umbrage at your referring to Straight to You as a sea shanty? While the original version by composer Nick Cave was interesting I thought it completely lost the depth of the sometimes beautiful and oftentimes frightful images of the lyrics. Pure poetry and Josh Groban has plumbed the depths there in a very, for him, restrained way. The difference in Illuminations and prior Josh Groban is not the presence or absence of orchestral "swelling" or his big voice, it is the absence of electronic polishing, tinkering, reverb, perfecting and overblowing. This is an exercise in restraint and, like good sex, the longer the restraint, the more powerful the release. Yes, I said it.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

Posted by: cornmaiden | November 22, 2010 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge washingtonpost.com's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.




characters remaining

 
 
RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company