Sunday, July 26, 2009

Keith Urban – Defying Gravity [music review]

* Released in March

As an avid music consumer it’s very rare nowadays that I discover an established musical artist that I suddenly wake up to and turn into a huge fan of. Since I was a kid I’ve kept my ears pretty close to the ground about what’s going on in music and there has been precious little in the way of new artists from the last ten to fifteen years that have really moved me. But between those few that have as well as a steady stream of new music from veteran artists whose careers I’ve followed for some time, well, most of the time that’s been more than satisfying in terms of feeding my musical appetite. So when I recently began to listen to and really, really enjoy the music of country artist Keith Urban, who’s been around since his first album in 1991, I was amazed, confused and excited that I’d tapped once again into that rare feeling that certain musicians can deliver to me as a music junkie.

Why “amazed” and “confused”, you ask? Until recent years I’ve never been a country fan and when I did start giving it more of a listen and appreciating what it had to offer I just never heard anything from a male country artist that I would even consider buying. All the country music I’ve purchased has been by female artists – Shania Twain, Deena Carter, Dixie Chicks and Sugarland (who have a female vocalist). Another thing this bunch has in common is that they tread mostly equal ground between a pop and country sound, which is what hooked me. I can even say that Sugarland’s Love On The Inside release from last year was the best album I heard (and I buy and download a ton of music every year) until September when Metallica’s Death Magnetic masterpiece came along. Even still, Love On The Inside finished a very strong number two in terms of my favourite albums of the year. There are plenty of male country artists who also mix elements of pop and country but as mentioned, none of it ever interested me.

The little that I knew about Keith Urban was that he was Australian (which certainly makes him a standout in this normally Americanized genre), he was married to Nicole Kidman, he’s huge in North America and that he was supposedly a great guitar player. I’d heard a song or two over the years but never gave him a second thought, aside from his name coming up occasionally through knowing a couple of people who were big fans. Then earlier this year I came across a copy of his new album (Defying Gravity) online that had leaked a little less than a week before it's release and I decided to download and burn it for a friend at work who I knew would love to hear it a little early.

Since the album was just sitting there on my computer after burning the CD I decided I’d give it a listen to see what the fuss was about. Upon first listen I thought it was decent enough…at least worthy of a second looking at. After a few more times through it I became more and more impressed with his voice, songwriting and guitar abilities. I went out and bought my own copy of the CD and with my interest piqued I borrowed a couple of live Urban DVD’s off my work friend and was even more impressed by the man’s live show. Urban is a dynamic performer and the live setting really lets him show off his guitar chops, which are considerable. I was unfamiliar with nearly all the songs but after I finished watching both performances I was inspired enough to go back through his catalog and pick up some of his previous work which proved to be at the same quality level as Defying Gravity.

One of the lingering impressions after just a couple of listens of Defying Gravity was the abundance of love songs on the album. The lyrics for all 11 tracks deal either mostly or completely about being in love, seeking love or some mix of the two yet somehow the album manages to transcend the apparent one-dimensionality of the subject matter to deliver a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience. Great musicianship, top-notch production and some huge hooks definitely help. A further examination of Urban’s other work reveals a similar affinity for songs dealing with matters of the heart and while I must say that although a little more range as far as topics would be welcome he does work extremely well within that area and has written and recorded many great romantic songs that the ladies just eat up (and guys like myself who aren’t too proud to admit they love a good, sappy love song can certainly appreciate).

Urban’s guitar pyrotechnics are held in check on the album…actually, he’s surprisingly restrained as far as the guitar solos go and I greatly respect musicians who aren’t overeager to shove their musical abilities in the listener’s face, just because they can. The songs come first and there’s a nice balance of ballads (“Only You Can Love Me This Way”, “Til Summer Comes Around”), mid-tempo numbers (“Kiss A Girl”, “If Ever I Could Love”) and higher energy songs (“I’m In”, “Hit The Ground Running”). The final song on the album, “Thank You”, is a straight-up love letter to his wife and the sentiments are so heartfelt that it just feels wrong to wrinkle up your nose because it maybe feels a little too over the top. It’s one of the better songs on an album that barely takes a mis-step…if there is one it might be the track “Why’s It Feel So Long”, a laid back acoustic-driven song that feels like a Jimmy Buffet reject. Otherwise, it’s pretty much wall-to-wall quality, highlighted by the opening four songs “Kiss A Girl”, “If Ever I Could Love”, “Sweet Thing” and “Til Summer Comes Around”, with the latter doing a great job of conveying the melancholy feel of the end of summer coupled with the heartbreak of lost love (and shaded with some beautiful guitar work).

Now I understand what all the hype is about with Urban and I look forward to experiencing his live show in person this October. It’s also nice to be reminded that there’s always going to be some band or singer out there who one day, for whatever reason the musical gods who conspire to dictate likes and dislikes decide, will suddenly make sense to me and I’ll wonder how I functioned without their music in my life. I’m still waiting for my Dylan phase to kick in and though I suspect it’ll never take hold, it’s probably wise to never say never…

Rating: 8.5/10