Sunday, October 6, 2013

Best Album Of The Year?! My Vote Is For Sway By Blue October!

The Good: Diverse musical sound, Vocal diversity, Cohesive album quality, Most of the lyrics, Replayability.
The Bad: Shorter than I like, One or two terrible rhymes.
The Basics: Sway reaffirms that Justin Furstenfeld and his band Blue October can rock in an meaningful and compelling way!

I have, admittedly, not been listening to a lot of new music this year. Frankly, most of the musical artists that I like are not putting out music this year or are in the recording studio now for late 2013 releases. It seems most of the early music from this year on the pop-rock front has been particularly banal (at least what I have heard of it on the radio) and no new artists have grabbed my attention to the degree that I’ve felt the desire to pick up any of their albums to give them a fair shake. So, declaring that Blue October’s new album Sway might well be the best album of 2013 is certainly biased by this reviewer for the simple fact that it is the only album from 2013 I’ve actually listened to and reviewed.

That said, Sway has an objectively great quality to it that makes it far, far better than any of the music on the radio right now and well worth picking up. In the absence of any other music that could get me to give it a second listen this year, Blue October has a stand-out album with Sway if for no other reason than I have enjoyed listening to it at least twenty times now. My wife is a fan of Blue October and it is because of her that I have heard Foiled (reviewed here!) and Approaching Normal (her favorite all-time album, reviewed here!) at least fifty times each. But my wife has been very wary of new Blue October albums because they have a hit-or-miss quality and the last few I picked up for her she did not enjoy (some she did not even keep). Sway, though, re-establishes a level of quality for Blue October albums that has had both my wife and I singing their praises once again.

With 13 tracks occupying 56:05, Sway is a musically-diverse album that has remarkably good overall cohesion. What binds the album together – despite having songs that have very different sounds to the songs – are the vocals of Justin Furstenfeld and the lyrics written by Furstenfeld. Justin Furstenfeld wrote or co-wrote each of the songs and they have his usual therapeutic bent (they sound like therapy sessions and ventings set to music, though Sway is – delightfully – far less angry than some of the other Blue October albums). Justin Furstenfeld (Jeremy Furstenfeld is a member of the band Blue October as well, hence the continued use of first and last names!) provides all of the lead vocals in addition to being the primary writer on all of the songs. He also plays guitar and was responsible for some of the programming and producing of Sway. Justin Furstenfeld is the heart and soul of Blue October and Sway is very much his creative vision.

Musically, Sway shows that Blue October has a serious level of range that they have not always portrayed in the past. The songs vary from fast pace strong rock and roll (“Hard Candy” – which sounds like it could have come from Nickelback – “Bleed Out” and “Angels In Everything”) to soft ballads (“Breathe, It’s Over”) to songs that border on trip-hop (“Debris”). In fact, the murky sound of “Fear” sounds unlike anything the band has ever done and that makes it a particularly compelling track. Unfortunately, the album’s weak link, “Things We Do At Night” falls down in part because of how it sounds very much like their prior song “Jump Rope.” As well, the single “Sway” has an entire sequence that sounds – musically and vocally – like a Matchbox Twenty phrase. Fortunately, those are the exceptions to the rule and most of Sway is highly-original, compelling rock and roll.

Vocally, Sway gives Justin Furstenfeld more to do than on some of the prior albums. Each and every song has him articulating clearly, which is something that sets him and Blue October apart from most rock bands (contemporary, alternative, and past!). Furstenfeld goes lower than usual and actually holds notes for a decent amount of time on songs like “Angels In Everything” and he goes higher and makes his vocals scratchier on “Hard Candy.” Even “Things We Do At Night” has a level of articulation and clarity that is uncommon and actually quite enjoyable.

There are very few albums where I find myself enjoying the album based on the first released single where I do not feel like the album has completely shot its wad on the one song. Sway was sold on the strength of the single “Bleed Out” (which should be a guaranteed Grammy nomination for Blue October, at the VERY least). “Bleed Out” is an impressive song with lines like “Wide awake / Like a dream / As simple as a secret / Being told, told to everyone but me /Will I / Bleed out / I gave it all / But you can't stop taking from me / And way down I know / You know where to cut me / With your eyes closed” and while it is arguably the best song on Sway, the rest of the album holds up exceptionally well on the lyrics front.

Indeed, the only exception to the general poetic greatness Justin Furstenfeld and his co-writers possess on Sway comes on the song “Things We Do At Night.” “Things We Do At Night” has a sadly pathetic and obvious rhyme scheme and a singsong quality to the song that is not worthy of being on the same album as “Debris.” Even worse is that the song mimics the other singsong Blue October track “Jump Rope,” though “Things We Do At Night” is nowhere near as repetitive. Still, Blue October can do much better than “Thing we do at night / Keeping it together / ‘til the morning light / When you’re nobody’s somebody / You want to be somebody’s somebody” (“Things We Do At Night”).

Sway does not burn it all out on one song. More than any album I’ve listened to in recent years, Sway has a strong middle. Tracks three through nine all sound like they could be viable radio singles, which is something uncommon on today’s albums. As one might expect from a Blue October album, many of the lyrics on Sway are introspective and moody. Still, few people can get away with the poetic lines “All my life / Been running from a pain in me / A feeling I don't understand / Holding me down / Rain on me / Underwater / All I am, getting harder / A heavy weight / I carry around. / Today / I don't have to fall apart / I don't have to be afraid / I don't have to let the damage / consume me, / My shadow see through me” (“Fear” ) and not sound completely sappy. Blue October is one of the bands that can sell that level of moodiness without sounding like it is whiny or appealing to emo teens.

That makes Sway an objective slam-dunk and while Blue October has, traditionally, been overlooked by musical awards, this album in an otherwise barren musical year, shines with a quality that makes it virtually impossible to ignore.

The best track is “Bleed Out” (though “Debris” and “Fear” solidly follow it and give it a run for its money!) and the low point is “Things We Do At Night.”

For other rock and roll albums, please visit my reviews of:
Dig Out Your Soul (2-Disc) - Oasis
Exile On Mainstream - Matchbox Twenty
Stadium Arcadium - Red Hot Chili Peppers


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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