Review: Jem’s “Down To Earth”

Sep 17, 2008 11:28am

Jem Griffiths caused a scene with hipsters in-the-know, four years ago with her very pleasing debut, “Finally Woken.”  As a Welsh singer/songwriter with authentic behind-the-scenes electronica-cred, she was able to do the impossible by making pop music that the jaded cool crowd could also enjoy.  She came off like a party-ready answer to Dido, with cooler beats and a throatier vocal tone.  Her music appeared on both “The O.C.” and “Six Feet Under,” and she won praise from in-the-know tastemakers like Nic Harcourt of Santa Monica, California’s NPR indie-rock radio mainstay KCRW.  “Down To Earth” is her second release and considering the dub-driven greatness of “Finally Woken,” it has a lot to live up to.  Like that album, it’s an appealing slow-burner that might take a few listens to unveil its true potential. It doesn’t quite pop in the same way as its predecessor, but it is close. “Finally Woken” bounced from party tracks like “Just a Ride” and “Wish I” to ballads like “Flying High” somewhat effortlessly and hit single, “They” was a classical-fueled foray into trip-hop.  “Down To Earth” is for the most part a quieter, more reflective affair.  It’s got its high-points and its peppy, catchy moments, but it mostly lurks in mellower terrain. This isn’t a bad thing at all.  It would have been nice for her to explore her electronic-side more, but what she does here, she does confidently and effectively, so there’s really nothing to complain about.  This is a strong pop record because it has real artistic intent and skillful songwriting backing it up. The album opens with the title track.  A heartbeat and a serious, ethereal-sounding piano bit introduce the disc. The heartbeat speeds up and fades away.  There’s a moment of silence, and the song sets itself off with a thumping, shuffling, crumply beat and an Eastern-sounding acoustic guitar riff.  The song is sung from the point of view of either an alien or an angel sent “on a mission down to Earth to watch and to observe life…” All is not well, however, as she explains, “But what I mostly see is misery and it makes me sad.”  These are complicated times and these lines set off what turns out to be a recurring theme of a down-trodden world full of sadness and woe. Such a point of view doesn’t weigh down the record because there are enough upbeat moments to counteract the gloom.  Rather, this somewhat dark thematic thesis simply guides the record and gives it a firm direction. The track itself sonically recalls a cross between “They” and the “Finally Woken” track, “24.” “Crazy” is the next track, and it’s more upbeat in its tone, with its slickly slinky, groovy guitar line, dashes of organ and one of the funkiest uses of a banjo ever committed to either tape or hard-drive.  She kicks a no-good lover out of the house by saying, “You think I’m crazy, / Oh hell, I may be, / Boy, you’re not welcome here.”  The track is bathed in a funk-ified disco coat. It lies in the nether-region somewhere between KC & the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way (I Like It)” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.”  In short, the song works.  It’s authoritative and ready to be a hit single.  The Latin-dance groove of “I Want You To…” is also ready to be heard.  According to the liner notes its groove is based on music by former Jurassic 5 DJ, Cut Chemist.  The mere mention of someone as skillful as Cut Chemist should let you know that this is indeed not your standard pop record.  Lester Mendez, who co-produced and co-wrote the song with Jem delivers a killer Latin-soaked piano solo which demands attention.    Another, more classically-toned piano solo sets off single, “It’s Amazing.”  This song appeared earlier this year on the “Sex and the City” soundtrack. (If you are turned off by that fact, you shouldn’t blame the song because it’s really a strong track.) The beat and piano go together with almost perfect precision. Despite the song’s upbeat rhythm, like a lot of this album, it does remain in a scale that skews in the minor direction, bringing it sadness even at its highest peak.  Near the end of the song, however, comes the album’s one, minor misstep.  When Jem decides to use the vocoder effect, it sounds inappropriate.  The fakery of Autotune and other such “fixers” have ruined what used to be a cool trick.  Jem’s not using it to fix her tone, but given how over-used the robotic effect is these days, it comes off as needless and gimmicky.  It would’ve been different a few years back. (Think for instance of Imogen Heap’s remarkable “Hide and Seek.”) Jem has a little echo on her voice, but that’s it.  There’s no pitch-shifting.  She has a nice, warm tone to her voice and is in no need of a fix, thus the overplayed digitized effect falls flat.  The downtrodden-minor-key worldview continues on the gospel-esque “Keep on Walking.”  Backed by a choir and an ominous strutting beat, she sings, “God give me strength to keep on walking.”  It’s out of character for an electronic-themed pop album, but its energy actually works in her favor.  “You Will Make It” is a touching piano ballad complete with a string section.  The song is about the death of two friends, (David Berry and DeShaun Holton, to whom the track is dedicated) and it features touchingly effective guest vocal work from South African singer, Vusi Mahlasela. It’s a standout track.  “I Always Knew” has a clapping beat, but still sounds very, very sad as Jem tells about how difficult it is to remain nice while climbing the music industry’s ladder.  “If I’ve got to toughen up, than that is what I’ll do.”  She sings about growing up in Wales and showing those who used to “mock” her that she can be a success.  Usually tracks like this are very self-serving and stale, but Jem brings a warm humanity to this song.  She’s in it for the love of music, and she wants success but not at a cost. “Got It Good” is another soft, piano number.  There are hints of brightness in the tune as she sings a song about being good to one another.  The message of unity seems tired, generic and sappy at first, but the song is nicely constructed.  Perhaps in these troubled times of war, we still need such reminders of all the qualities we share, despite our differences.  Perhaps it seems sappy and over-the-top to me because to me, its message is one of common sense.  Songs like this, though syrupy to some, may make others stop harmful, destructive, hateful behavior. Perhaps Jem has been watching the unrest in the world and feels like she needs to restore her faith in humanity.    Next, the album takes a massive detour into the dance-music world with the techno-driven “Aciiid.”  With its spoken-word verses and its Japanese-language chorus, it’s sure to stand out.  Give it at least three spins and you’re likely to appreciate it.  It is strange in an offbeat, likable sort of way.  “How Would You Like It” begins in soft territory like so many other tracks on the album but the chorus reveals a nice wall of fuzzed-out guitars.  If they were louder in the mix, the track might have been even stronger, but that’s really nitpicking.  It’s yet another likeable song.  Spirituality returns as a theme in “And So I Pray.”  The song is not really about religion or faith.  It’s more a reflective song about how it would be nice to be relieved of every day pressures and stresses.  It’s an anthem for all of us who ever wanted to “run away” and find a safe, peaceful place to collect our thoughts and take a breather.  As a quick, lightly electronic ballad, it’s a likable intimate, sweet, highly relatable number.  The standard album closes with “On Top of the World,” a somewhat trippy, acoustic guitar and piano-driven closer. It’s again on the softer side and a song about being “anxious” about being surrounded by “too much information.”  Again the escape theme is prominent.  There’s a dream-like quality to the way the piano floats over the beat.  When a music box edges into the mix, the track fully cements itself as a winner.  Jem closes the song by harmonizing beautifully with her own multi-tracked voice.  It’s a sonically stunning moment.  The record companies have gone a little mad with their chain-exclusives and multiple editions as of late.  This album is no different.  If you buy “Down to Earth” at Barnes & Noble, you get an exclusive bonus disc containing two bonus tracks.  The first is a stellar acoustic version of “And So I Pray.”  The second is an electronic collaboration with down-tempo musician, Carmen Rizzo, entitled “Écouter.”  The song has an almost water-like precision as it dances across a soft house-like beat.  Both of these songs are worthy additions, but this practice by the labels is a tired one.  Whatever happened to getting the same album everywhere in one unified edition?  (It could be worse, as any Smashing Pumpkins fan who attempted to search out the multiple “Special Edition” versions of their last album, “Zeitgeist,” will be glad to tell you.)    In closing, “Down To Earth” is another solid effort from Jem.  Only time will tell if it holds up as well as “Finally Woken.”  It’s a slightly quieter, darker album, so it may not be as immediate.  Give it time to grow.  Here, she has delivered a complex record about the human condition.  It’s a loving album full of hope for the future, exploring all the aspects we share.  She wants world peace and camaraderie.  She wants an end to all unrest.  We all need a peaceful place in which to reconnect with our sense of humanity.  If you let life’s outside forces drag you down, they will.  Take some time out and remember to breathe.   

You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus