Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Demi 'Goes Again' With Mixed Results

16-year-old Demi Lovato came into the musical consciousness of moi in late 2007 when word first broke about the incredibadness that was Disney's 'Camp Rock', starring the Jonas Brothers. Demi played the main lead, and won me over with her earnest grin and big voice.

I didn't become a full Lovato Lover until I saw her perform live when I saw her open for the brothers Jonas last summer. I was truly shocked by just how deep and sort of dark her material was. She could swagger and rock the best of them (on some tracks) with a bizarre intensity, and I certainly wasn't expecting that from a Disney Darling. I suppose I should have seen it coming from a self-processed "metal head"...

In one of the fastest turn-arounds in recent memory (a cue she surely took from her "brothers"), Demi has unleashed upon the world her sophomore album, the aptly titled Here We Go Again, this past Tuesday. Demi has stated from go that this album will be much more her, and less Jonai-infused pop rock than her 2008 debut, Don't Forget. Anyone who's listened to her first album could feel the brother's influence -- in addition to their duet ("On the Line"), the Jonas Brothers theselves co-wrote six of the album's eleven tracks (including the totally different and uh-mazing bonus cut, "Behind Enemy Lines"). Heck, "La La Land" opened with the same guitar riff that was featured in JB's "Video Girl" from their A Little Bit Longer album that was released around the same time.

With Here We Go Again, Demi is straying from her Jonas-gaze, but once again asserts how involved she wants to be in the creative process. She wrote or co-wrote eleven of the fourteen tracks on this disc (and wrote/co-wrote nine of the eleven from her debut). So for the haters who choose to believe Demi is just a Disney Puppet, think again. It's also quite clear Ms. Lovato yearns for a day when her name can be mentioned without also mentioning the Jonas boys, but unfortunately for her, that day isn't quite here yet.

This record is clearly a transitional piece, a proverbial bridge toward a more mature mod-pop-rock sound than her previous Disney-fied Paramore-wannabe type of sound. She still has new material for strict fans of her older catalogue, but the bulk of this album attempts to straddle the line between rock out and softer adult contemporary mid-tempo jams. For those of you who are like me, hoping for more material like "Behind Enemy Lines", you will be happy campers. Bad joke? Yes? No?

The set opens with "Here We Go Again", the first single. My main complaint was it felt too generic. After the influx of pop-rock singles ("So What", "My Life Would...", "It's Alright..."), this doesn't stand out to me. That thought aside, there is no denying Demi's vocal prowess and the song is very singable and catchy. I just wish she went a more distinguishing route with the first single. At times, it sounds like to me like a re-hashed, slightly more mid-tempo version of her debut single, "Get Back", and why re-tread water?

"Solo" was written by the production team that brought us Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn", Beyonce's "Listen" (off the 'DreamGirls' soundtrack) and Miley Cyrus' "Start All Over" (and they also wrote a later song in this set, "Quiet"). The song is sonically familiar territory for Lovato fans. The guitars start to drown out her beautiful voice (especially during the chorus), but I do enjoy the interesting key choices and play-on-words lyrics ("Solo" and "So Low"), with some choice words for a playboy actor. Wonder who brought this on?

When I first saw "U Got Nothin' On Me" as a song title, I cringed. Then I heard the song and it quickly became an early favorite of the set. The song is pure 70's rock soul rehashed to fit a post-millennial world of auto-tune and electro. It's ridiculously refreshing for an electro-girl like me, and for whatever reason, reminds me of Fleetwood Mac. Take that for what you will. The lyrics are relatable and inventive for someone in her genre, a mantra that continues to be supported throughout the perusal of the album.

"Falling Over Me" is another personal favorite, complete with gorgeous plunky-ness of piano, driving (but muted) guitars, and Demi harnassing that big voice of hers. The song was co-written by the ridiculously talented Jon McLaughlin, and I'm guessing that's him singing backups as well. As always, Demi impresses me with her penchant for writing relatable but refreshing lyrics ("Who you are is falling over me/Who you are has got me on my knees").

"Quiet" opens soft, hushed, emotional, before launching into the chorus with the apropos words, "It's much too quiet in here!" I would have liked a bit more contrast between the soft and loud, but for most, I think her voice is just perfect as at times (on her debut anyway) it bordered on being too intense. It's clear Demi has learned and matured into her voice over the past year...

Fan favorite "Catch Me" opens sounding very "Don't Forget" (my fave off of her debut of the same name) in note choices and tempo. As the chorus comes in, a soft and sonorous cello melts in counterpoint (and in the second verse, it's a full orchestral trio). Once again, the lyrics strike me especially since this track in particular was written soley by Lovato herself:

"See this heart
Won't settle down
Like a child running scared
From a clown
I'm terrified of what you'll do
My stomach screams
Just when I look at you"

However, as we run the 2:30 bend, the drums kick in and a perfectly beautiful soft song is turned into an attempt at being rock-epic. It ends on a soft note, so my only complaint is that tempo change.

"Every Time You Lie" begins with record popping in an attempt to sound vintage and has a distinctly blues-y sound. It's another McLaughlin collaboration and it shows in a good way. This is a style that suits Demi's big voice like butter on bread. It's more modern-but-vintage-sounding Chrisette Michele than Christina Aguilera during her 'Back to Basic' era, and it does Demi just fine.

"Got Dynamite" boasts the biggest producer in terms of mainstream pop production: Evan "Kidd" Bogart (Beyonce's "Halo", NLT (RIP) 's "Karma", Rihanna's "SOS", Brandy's "Right Here (Departed)", Blake Lewis' "Surrender", Jessi Malay's "Gimme", nay I go on), who also tends to be a frequent collaborator with J.R. Rotem. High stakes indeed. For those of you who dug "Get Back", this one's for you, as it returns Demi to her rock-out mode, minus the childlike lyrics ("Tell me what you got to break down the walls/You just might need dynamite"). You expect it to go about a notch more intense, but again -- I dig this controlled (vocally speaking) Demi.

Girlfriend returns to her roots in the only real callback to her Jonai-influenced past (see her to the left with Kevin, Joe and Nick themselves) with "Stop the World", a mid-tempo jammer, co-written with peer brother Nick Jonas and often Jonai collaborator PJ Bianco ("When You Look Me Eyes" anyone?). Demi and Nick are a well-matched pair in terms of lyrics, but I don't find this song particularly memorable.

One of the big hypes associated with Demi's new project was it would boast a few songs co-written by John Mayer, but "World of Chances" is the only track with Mayer that made it to the final tracklist (for whatever reason -- I was really looking forward to hearing "For the Love of A Daughter" which riffs on her parent's divorce and her estranged relationship with her father...fingers crossed it will leak as a bonus track). I suppose I can hear this as a Mayer track complete with acoustic guitar and breathy-ish vocals). Again, I don't find it heart-stoppingly good, but rather kind of meh.

Another early fan favorite, "Remember December" verges on electro with that stuttery back beat, which is certainly new terrain. It almost sounds video-game-esque, like a girl in chase mode. Interesting, indeed. Toby Gad, who was a repeat offender (in a good way) on Jordin Sparks' sophomore album (that was released the same day as Here We Go Again) with supreme successes, appears here for Demi with "Everything You're Not", helping close out the set. It cues up sounding almost like a twinkling music box, but despite it's soft and romantic air, the lyrics paint a different picture of moving on from painful heartbreak, and the tempo kicks up with crunchy guitars during the choruses. It seems to be a familiar topic for Ms. Lovato (at 16?), and by the end of the set, you become a bit weary of a similar sounding thing. However, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the lyrics once again strike me with their imagery:

"And I'm done with your twisted symphony
The words that had me sound like stolen poetry
I tore the pages and I can finally breathe"

I personally feel the final tracks, "Gift of A Friend" and "So Far So Great" (which is the theme song to Demi's Disney sitcom, 'Sonny With A Chance') were clearly tacked on by Disney to be used in future compliations sets ("Radio Disney Presents...Part 511!"), but that doesn't necessarily mean its a bad thing. "Gift of A Friend" is a trademark Disney ballad of love, friendship and hope, along the lines of "Colors of the Wind" or "Reflection", and Demi's voice temper it perfectly. I have no doubt it will be packaged with some upcoming Disney film, no? It would work great as the credits song to the next big animated Disney hit. As for the final track, I'm not so familiar with 'Sonny', but it is along the lines of 'Hannah Montana' mashed with 'All That'...or so they say. "So Far So Great" harkens Demi back to her 'Camp Rock' persona, and the lyrics are chock full with the mantra of "reach for your dreams". It's perfectly enjoyable for the inner Radio-Disney geek in you, but its inclusion on this set feels quite forced.

For the most part, Here We Go Again helps establish Demi on her own terms, and while the majority of the record is very enjoyable if you're in that chill mood, only a handful of songs wowed me enough to immediately put them on repeat. It's the type of record that you'd want to listen to (mostly) beginning to end when the situation called, but I feel Disney will have trouble attempting to market this properly as it's much beyond their call of duty (hence their attempt to market her as a mini-Avril with "La La Land" and "Get Back" last year). Overall, the ball is clearly in Demi's court, and I think that suits her just fine.

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