Review: Joshua Radin’s “Simple Times”

Sep 30, 2008 6:56pm

One gets the idea that Joshua Radin really wants to come off like a less wounded answer to Elliott Smith.  In truth, on his second album, “Simple Times,” he sometimes comes off like a second-rate answer to John Mayer.  This isn’t to insult Radin’s songwriting.  At his best, he does bring to mind Smith’s high-voiced, quiet brilliance.  Unfortunately, he channeled that energy better on his debut album, “We Were Here.”  (That album’s “Winter” is astonishingly fantastic!) This album seems more commercial in its approach. In other words, there’s a surprisingly thin line between unquestionably cool adult-alternative singer-songwriterdom and adult-contemporary blandness. Who knew?  It just goes to show that being hip really is an intangible quality either you have or you don’t.  The thirty-three minute disc begins with the quietly enjoyable “One of Those Days.”  It has a reflective, minor key quality that Radin works with quite well.  The sadder the tone of the song, the better he does.  Not only is this a sad and broken-hearted in its tone, but it is also slightly orchestral in nature. “I’d Rather Be With You” starts off on the right foot, but as it picks up and the drums come in, Radin puts on a surprisingly slightly cocky sounding strut.  He’s still relatively quiet, but as he sings, “I need to be bold, I need to jump in the cold water, need to grow older with a girl like you,” his lyrical rhyming syncopation brings to mind the softer side of singers like Jason Mraz.  One maybe shouldn’t blame Radin for this.  Maybe the blame goes on people like Mraz who have misappropriated hip-hop influence into low-grade, soft alternative rock.  No matter what Radin does, he has a higher hipster quotient than Mraz.  Such a lyrical technique now seems slightly hack-y thanks to others’ misuse.  “Sky” starts off beautifully quiet, before it explodes into an “oh, oh” chorus which, while slightly likable, seems to be crafted as an attempt to court pop radio.  Singer, Meiko adds some nice vocal harmonies.  There’s nothing wrong with the song. In fact, it’s quite enjoyable, but it seems calculated. “Friend Like You” is an example of some of Radin’s better work.  It’s a minimalist number featuring him and his acoustic guitar with some subtle piano work.  The less instrumentation he has, the better it works for him.  Strangely, when he rises above a near whisper, everything begins to fall apart. “Brand New Day” is brighter sounding.  It’s a love song with lyrical mentions of “the moon” and “magic” and self-renewal.  Despite its tired, clichéd refrain of “it’s a brand new day. / The sun is shining. / It’s a brand new day. / For the first time in such a long time, I know I’ll be Okay,” it actually works. It’s a credit to Radin’s songwriting that he’s able to make something so basic sound vaguely fresh.  “They Bring Me To You” also works.  Radin can craft a decent melody, and he proves once again that he harmonizes well with female accompaniment when he is joined by Erin McCarley.  In fact when he sings with women, it emphasizes the romantic quality his songs can possess.  “Vegetable Car” is the worst example on this record.  Here is where he sounds most like John Mayer.  Not, the good side of John Mayer, but the corny, “Your Body is a Wonderland” side of Mayer.  The song may be a hit at some point, but it would be a shame.  It is about how he likes a woman with “Lisa Loeb glasses” who “drives a vegetable car.”  With its upbeat rhythm and subtle handclaps, it seems like a very self-satisfied song which is too cute for its own good.  “Free of Me” has a catchy, pulsing quality, a kicking drum beat and some atmospheric keyboards, but it works much better.  It would be a much better choice for a potential single.  Somehow it is able to do the impossible by combining Radin’s strong qualities with his pop side.  It’s a rare combination on this album.  Back to his minimalist best, he is then joined by Patty Griffin who helps him sing “You Got Growin’ Up To Do.”  With this sadly reflective, beautiful number he and Griffin are able to set a tone with very little.  Less truly is more. One imagines this as a great soundtrack for a contemplative, Autumn evening walk home.  “We Are Okay” stands out because it’s got a galloping drumbeat, complete with some cowbell action.  “We are Okay. / We are alright. /We sing very loud,” he sings.  It’s a little too basic and it sounds a little too much like a nauseating campfire sing-along. Radin luckily ends the album on a positive note.  “No Envy, No Fear” seems like a Summer-themed sequel to “Winter.”  He sings in the same, gently hushed tone, backed by an acoustic guitar and a mandolin.  Indeed, softness and subtlety are Radin’s friends.  “Simple Times” was produced by big-name producer, Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith) and it sounds fantastic, but it’s an uneven record.  When all systems are channeling the right energy, though, Radin really can bring the house down. Maybe next time he can not worry about pop potential and just pay attention to his strengths. In the meantime, if you are a new fan, “We Were Here” is a much better starting point.

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