I talked a lot about the “white guy with guitar” streak during my Idol series this past season and how the producers were determined to break it – an effort I can understand after five male winners in a row, but with the success of Phillip Phillips and David Cook, there’s an obvious underlining message there that the people know what they want.
Sandwiched in the middle of that streak was this guy… the unassuming paintshop worker from Mount Prospect, Illinois: Lee DeWyze. He didn’t have the bombastic vocals of David Cook or the showy charisma of Scotty McCreery, but what he did have was a certain charm when left to his own devices and his trusty guitar. He had the kind charm you could tell was meant for a more intimate setting and I can say with certainty, after seeing a couple of his smaller shows since his victory, that up close and personal is the way to go with this guy. Following his win on Idol, he released an album called Live It Up. It was full of some infectious pop tracks mixed with what was, obviously, more of Lee’s style as evidenced on his pre-Idol albums with Wuli Records: Slumberland and So I’m Told – and that style comes out full force in his new album, Frames. If there was any worry, after his performance on Idol’s twelfth season results show, that he might just become another by-product of the “Mumford” fad that seems to have taken over the music scene today, DeWyze dispels it quickly with tracks that test the very limits of the freedom his new recording label, Vanguard Records, has given him.
Every lyric on his album seems to be carefully chosen, a trait often lacking from Idol’s post-show efforts. DeWyze seems determined to tell a story with every song and, I can say with experience from seeing him, that he always has a story to go along with them. DeWyze even said, in the last show that I saw him, that the title “Frames” comes from the idea that memories are like pictures that tell stories and each song seems to borrow from that idea to create a really great conceptual whole. For example: the penultimate track on the album: Who Would’ve Known was written by DeWyze this past year as a backdrop to his wedding with his beautiful wife, actress Jonna Walsh. Putting the track on the album was one of those obviously personal decisions that only come from an artist who is comfortable in their own skin and with their record label.
To take it a step further, DeWyze has been releasing tracks from his album in the weeks preceding it’s August 20th release, which included a deluxe option with dramatically different acoustic versions of all the songs that seem to speak to the fact that DeWyze knows how different he sounds live. My intention is to review the standard version of the album, but I feel like I would be doing you a disservice not to tell you that the album in it’s acoustic entirety adds another layer of explanation to why DeWyze won the viewers over and triumphed in his season so handedly.
As for the standard side of the album, it’s clear that DeWyze was going for an authentic vibe. He’s cited Cat Stevens, Eric Clapton, Ben Harper and Simon & Garfunkel as his influences in the past and, as if those weren’t evidence enough of his love for authenticity and stripped down music, DeWyze brings in the brass, strings, banjo and piano on various tracks to add to his acoustic guitar stylings. As I’ve said, before the release of the album, there were mumblings of a forthcoming “Mumford” sound from DeWyze, with worry that many of the tracks would blend together on the album. DeWyze smartly changes tempo and instruments so many times on this album that he leaves no doubt in your mind, after a few listens, where you are on the tracklisting. When I saw DeWyze, it was just him, his guitar and a pedal where the singer could tap his foot in time to the beat, creating the rhythm he needs to deliver his songs with just him and his guitar. The effect was almost ethereal late at night at a bar surrounded by people as mesmorized by his music as I was, and I was worried the album would lose that quality but I don’t feel like it has, by any means. If anything, the addition of the new instruments compliments DeWyze perfectly. For example, Breathing In, the final track on the standard side of the album, is so quiet that you can almost hear DeWyze breathing and moving his fingers along the frets of his guitar as he delivers the lyrics.
The album also starts strong and hooks you right away with tracks that DeWyze let slip before the release: Fight, Like I Do and Silver Lining – each one catchier than the last without sacrificing the authenticity of DeWyze’s guitar and heartfelt lyrics. Midway through, the singer-songwriter seems to switch gears with some unique and unexpected rhythms in Fire Away, The Ride, Open Your Eyes and You Don’t Know Me. The tracks are so unlike anything on DeWyze’s previous release that they caught my attention and had me replaying them a few times just to make sure I took in every bit of them. Like any well produced album, DeWyze’s album benefits from a listen through headphones which let me pick up instruments and backup vocals that sometimes computer speakers fail to show off to the fullest extent. Lee closes the album, with Little Did I Know and the aforementioned Breathing In and Who Would’ve Known on a more intimate level, the kind that makes me sure the album won’t be out of place over dinner and jamming out on my iPod simultaneously. My favourite track on the album though, and one that seems to defy being grouped with any of the others on the album, is the title track Frames, which is the only time DeWyze drops explicit language onto the album, but it seems to be an overwhelmingly artistic choice that speaks to the desperation he’s trying to convey in the song. It truly is a standout on an album full of solid material and when DeWyze first performed it live at the show I was at, I felt just as amazed with it as I do now with the studio and acoustic versions.
Before I leave you to take a listen yourself, and discover DeWyze’s newfound sound, but definitely one that is more true to himself than his previous album, I’ll just stress again the dramatic difference between the acoustic and studio versions of the album. I’d urge you to listen to both because the transformation the tracks went from acoustic to final recorded version is so interesting that, for me, it leaves me no doubts about DeWyze’s future career: With Vanguard by his side, we’re going to be getting some great music from him for years to come.