The Good: Lyrics, Most of the vocals, Decent instrumental accompaniment/sound
The Bad: “Live” conceits, Short, Most of the ad libs, Nothing unique/exceptional reinterpretations.
The Basics: Ugly Side: An Acoustic Evening With Blue October illustrates well how many of Blue October’s most recognizable songs sound virtually the same live vs. their studio versions.
One would never know from how few reviews of Blue October albums I have written and posted how popular the band is around my house. To be honest, it is my wife’s love of the band that leads to their music being on around the house more often than not, but as I finish reposting the reviews I wrote from the site I used to be quite popular and prominent on, I am rediscovering the joys of music reviews and because I have such easy access to Blue October albums, odds are I’ll be reviewing more of them in the upcoming weeks. Today, though, my attention has been on Ugly Side: An Acoustic Evening With Blue October.
Ugly Side: An Acoustic Evening With Blue October is one of those dust-covered c.d.s on the shelf that I bought for my wife when she fell in love with the band Blue October and that she listens to, at best, once a year. Given how much she loves Blue October and would have liked to see them live around the time Approaching Normal was released, I thought Ugly Side: An Acoustic Evening With Blue October would have been a slam-dunk album for her. But when I picked the album up and started listening to it on heavy rotation, I learned quickly what she already knew: the album is nothing really new and what is new is hardly extraordinary.
With eleven tracks, clocking out at 54:04, Ugly Side: An Acoustic Evening With Blue October is very much the work of Justin Furstenfeld and the band Blue October. The album culls performances from a few Austin, Dallas, and Houston, Texas shows and features songs released on their various albums. There are no unique tracks to this album, save “Colorado 5591,” and it is very much an album for the fans. In fact, those who only know Blue October from their enduring radio hit “Hate Me” will be disappointed; that track is not performed live on the album. However, given the way the audience reacts to the announcement that the band was about to perform “Into The Ocean,” it is clear the album is intended to give fans who were not only showing up for the popular hit something new. Blue October’s members play all of the instruments and provide all of the vocals on Ugly Side: An Acoustic Evening With Blue October. Jeremy and Justin Furstenfeld produced Ugly Side: An Acoustic Evening With Blue October, so it is pretty much undeniable that this is the intended work of Blue October.
What the work proves is that live or in the studio, Blue October is at a place where they are able to release the music they want to release. There is remarkably little distinction in most of the tracks on Ugly Side: An Acoustic Evening With Blue October between the acoustic versions of their songs and the studio-produced versions of the same songs. In fact, the haunting violin on “The End” sounds so close to the produced version of the song that closes a prior album that one almost has to doubt that it actually met the qualification of being “acoustic.”
This leads me to my usual rant about “live” albums. So many artists seem convinced that in order to release a live album, they have to include as much noise from the audience as possible to prove to listeners that the album was recorded live. Ugly Side: An Acoustic Evening With Blue October features enough vocal differentiation – right off the bat on the first track, “Ugly Side,” in fact – to convince listeners that the work was recorded at a live venue (or live venues) so the crowd noises are actually more distracting and annoying than in some way “authentic.” Between the song introductions and an inordinate number of times that Furstenfeld inserts some variation of the word “fuck” into the songs (in places they were not originally), Ugly Side: An Acoustic Evening With Blue October is clearly a series of new recordings. Unfortunately, the addition of expletives does not make the already angsty and tormented Furstenfeld’s lyrics resonate any more than they already did.
Listening to Ugly Side: An Acoustic Evening With Blue October, one is immediately struck by how Justin Furstenfeld might not actually be the most original-sounding vocalist. My wife long-claimed that Furstenfeld had one of the unique male voices in music today. But, stripped of production elements, especially on songs like “The Answers,” Furstenfeld’s vocals sound familiar and derivative of others. On “The Answers,” he growls through the song like Eddie Vedder, on “Into The Ocean” and (especially) “X Amount Of Words” he sounds virtually identical to Michael Stipe of R.E.M., and the harmonizing vocals on “Amazing” make the vocals sound suspiciously like a lost David Bowie track! The vocals are not bad and Furstenfeld sings clearly, which is nice because it allows the listener to actually hear his lyrics.
Instrumentally, Blue October is presented on Ugly Side: An Acoustic Evening With Blue October as a very straightforward guitar/bass/drums band. The percussion is well-presented for the acoustic versions and the occasional violin helps make the instrumental accompaniment sound a little more distinctive than some other bands that are string-based.
What is entirely unsurprising on Ugly Side: An Acoustic Evening With Blue October are the lyrics and tone of the album. Blue October is not known for being a peppy band (and that’s wonderful!). Apparently, their live shows are not where they break out their upbeat songs. Instead, songs have lines like “Now our history is for sale / And for that I apologize / You see you're my only know how / The study of when I believe I belonged to you / You see I've made you into something delicious, / My sweet ghost / So have I found your secret weak spot, baby? / Can you pretend I'm amazing? / I can pretend I'm amazing / Instead of what we both know” (“Amazing”) that are haunting and deeply emotive. The album oscillates between sad songs and angry songs, with little thematic variation.
The original song on Ugly Side is a personal narrative by Justin Furstenfeld. The musical storysong follows Furstenfeld as musical narrator as he journeys through a psychiatric hospital: “I speak of Colorado 5591 / Where there's a paxil-plated morning sun / A hug every now and then from everyone / Colorado 5591 / But would you take it away, boys? . . . And through this mad parade I walked alone / And tried to find music to my own song / But the music too loud or the crowd too strong / I kept to myself, I kept alone” (“Colorado 5591”). The song is good and clear, but not an essential Blue October track that justifies the creation of or the purchase of the album.
Ultimately, Ugly Side: An Acoustic Evening With Blue October gives fans remarkably little that is new and nothing that is truly incredible, making it impossible to recommend. The best track is “Into The Ocean,” the low point is the less memorable “Tomorrow.”
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© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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