All That Echoes
Josh Groban occupies a perplexing position in America's cultural landscape. The 31-year-old Californian is an immensely likeable figure with a quirky wit that has secured him acting roles in a couple of Steve Carell's better projects, the acclaimed sitcom The Office and Crazy, Stupid Love, a movie much smarter than the title suggests.
On record, though, Groban presents a vastly different persona, borne of his classical roots and love of musical theatre; the voice is deep and portentous, perfectly suited to the romantic lead in a lavish Andrew Lloyd Webber production. And yet, having sold many millions of records, he clearly yearns to cross over to a more fashionable audience.
His previous album, 2010's Illuminations, was produced by Rick Rubin, the man who breathed edgy life into Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond's material. While critically acclaimed, Illuminations sold sluggishly. Now Groban has turned to Rob Cavallo, best known for work with the post-grunge bands Green Day and the Goo Goo Dolls.
Groban's more conservative fans need not be overly alarmed, though, since the pre-release talk of "sweeping alt-rock arrangements" proves to be largely inconsequential. The underwhelming soft-rock opening numbers, Brave and False Alarms, fail to test his impressive range, although the later pop-rocker Hollow Talk builds to a more satisfyingly epic conclusion. In between, the singer sticks to his traditional formula, interspersing foreign-language tracks with a varied selection of covers.
The results vary. The traditional Irish folk song She Moved Through the Fair is hardly an original choice, having already been recorded by two pop/classical crossover artists, Charlotte Church and Sarah Brightman; nevertheless, it provides a suitably grand platform for that rich voice. Jimmy Webb's country-pop lament The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is also a sure fit, with Groban revealing its similarities to one of his musical theatre favourites, the Les Misérables standard I Dreamed a Dream.
Too often the marriage fails, however. His ill-judged rendition of Stevie Wonder's I Believe remains just about bearable due to a restrained vocal performance but is ultimately regrettable. Even less distinguished is a version of Glen Hansard's Oscar-winning ballad Falling Slowly, in which that booming near-baritone stomps all over the original's subtle beauty.
Determined to widen his reach, Groban is making some curious choices. That voice is a mighty instrument. He really should just let it soar.