Full disclosure here: Regular readers of this column know that Lee was not my favorite contestant in Season 9. My early picks were Alex Lambert, Lilly Scott, and Siobhan Magnus, and by the time finale night came around, I was rooting for Crystal Bowersox. So my expectations were moderate when I attended Lee's playback today. But honestly...I was impressed by what I heard. I always thought Lee's biggest asset was what industry people might call his "recordable voice"--i.e., a voice just made for radio--and I always figured that's why Simon Cowell saw so much potential in him. So I figured if Lee could just get in the studio with the right people and get the proper smoky vocal tone on tape, paired with some solid songs, 19E could have another David Cook-style, rock-crossover success story on its hands. And judging by these tracks--three of which were co-written by Lee--that might be the case. It'll just depend on whether radio plays these songs after years of "Idol" fatigue, but hopefully programmers will give Lee a chance.
So without further ado, here are my thoughts on the four songs I heard:
"Live It Up" - The lead single which will premiere on Ryan Seacrest's morning radio show October 13, this is catchy VH1 dude-pop (think: Jason Mraz, Jack Johnson, Howie Day), with a tiny bit of alt-country flair (read: guitar twang) and a feelgood, radio-ready chorus all about carping the diem and enjoying the moment. (A theme not unlike that of Kris Allen's first single, "Live Like We're Dying," come to think of it.) With celebratory subject matter like that, this probably would've been a better coronation song for Lee than that odd U2 cover. Anyway, written by Lee with the song's producer, Toby Gad (who co-authored huge hits like Beyonce's "If I Were A Boy" and Fergie's "Big Girls Don't Cry," as well songs on Kris Allen and Allison Iraheta's albums), and Lindy Robbins (who co-penned some of the best cuts on Kris Allen's disc), this upbeat and infectious number is a wise (Wyze?) first-single choice for a man who often seemed overly serious and dour on "Idol." It's full of good vibes.
"Beautiful Like You" - This was produced by Chris DeStefano, whose credits include mostly working with tween-friendly acts like Emily Osment, David Archuleta, Aaron Carter, Steps, and No Secrets (and, um, Michael Bolton). But luckily, this doesn't sound like Radio Disney fodder. It's a pretty piano ballad with plenty of reverb to coax out the pleasingly smokiest tones of Lee's "recordable voice," a slow and dreamy track that brings to mind Snow Patrol, OneRepublic, and Five For Fighting. This one was not written by Lee, but its authors--Tawgs Salter (Lights, Elliott Yamin, and, um, Kenny G, Barry Manilow, and Josh Groban) and Mark Stochansky--do a good job here. However, to lapse into label A&R-speak, this doesn't sound like a single to me. It's more of a solid album track.
"Me & My Jealousy" - A yearning breakup ballad that builds in momentum to a crashing, chiming chorus that puts Lee's signature rasp front and center, this Lee co-write does sound like a single to me. This too is total VH1 material--I can imagine this one on VH1's morning program "JumpStart" right now. The song's producer and co-writer, John Shanks, has a long history of working with female talent--Melissa Etheridge, Sheryl Crow, Michelle Branch, Stevie Nicks, Liz Phair, Alanis Morissette, Sara Evans, and, um, Miley Cyrus--and he seems to bring out a softer side of Lee here. The song's other co-author, Zac Maloy, also recently co-wrote Carrie Underwood's "Temporary Home," so he knows his way around a tear-jerking tune too. I enjoyed hearing this aspect of Lee; it reminded me of one of his more emotional "Idol" performances like "The Boxer" and "Falling Slowly."
"Dear Isabelle" - OK, this one (also produced by Toby Gad and written by Lee/Toby/Lindy) was far and away my favorite song I heard today. Its cute acoustic-ditty vibe (imagine Owl City unplugged) may not deem it instantly single-worthy to the powers-that-be, but hey, Kris Allen finally got to release "Alright With Me" as a single, so you never know. This track, which is slightly reminiscent of the Plain White Ts' "Hey There Delilah," definitely had the insta-melody that stuck with me most, so hopefully 19 will consider it as a single down the road. Besides, the sweet Midwestern-boy shoutouts to Lake Michigan, and the rhyming of "Isabelle" with "hell," were nice touches too.
So, there you go. If only these songs had some bagpipes on 'em...oh well, maybe one of the other eight Live It Up cuts will. Watch this space!
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