Album Review: Josh Groban, “Awake” (2006)

In regards of my three favorite musicians, this has been the best fall ever. In September, John Mayer released his third studio album, Continuum, which I was obviously very pleased with. In October, Jamie Cullum came to town, and I had the pleasure of having front row seats at his show (which was basically the best concert I’ve ever been to…but I’ll save that for another review). Finally, Josh Groban also released his third studio album, Awake.

Thanks to AOL’s First Listen, I had already heard the first single You Are Loved (Don’t Give Up) and had pushed it high up on my Overall Top Tracks list on Last.fm. November 7th neared and besides making a stop at the polls, I ran to my nearest CD retailer and picked up Groban’s album.

The first, second, and probably third listens were a bit disappointing. My “great fall of music” seemed to be, well…falling flat; Awake was a nice album, but not exactly what I wanted it to be. And then I realized that all of Groban’s albums took some time to grow on me, so I played the CD again, and suddenly all of the pieces fell into place, and I fell in love with the album as I expected I would.

The disc starts off with Mai, the first of many Italian songs on the album. The song starts off very quietly, with light strings and percussion before Groban begins to sing the opening lines. Though he doesn’t fluently speak Italian, it’s hard to tell, as he handles the language perfectly during this song and the others on the album. The song, though fairly simple, is beautiful and the soaring chorus and ending verse provide a great opener for the album.

Next up is the aforementioned first single, You Are Loved. Okay, I’ll admit that this song is a bit corny, but let’s look at Groban’s other big singles: To Where You Are, You’re Still You, and You Raise Me Up. All are from the same vain of inspirational ballads that are played nightly on Delilah. Does that make them corny? Absolutely. But that’s part of the reason why everyone loves them so much. Anyway, this song is quite similar to the three I’ve just mentioned; this time around Groban encourages someone to “don’t give up…because you are loved” with a poppy beat and another big chorus. And you’ll love it in all its sappy glory.

February Song comes early as one of my favorites on the album. The track is a slow ballad, composed of mostly piano and Groban’s voice (which gets quite a good workout; his falsetto is also flawless during the chorus and bridges). Groban co-wrote the song himself with John Ondrasik (better known as Five For Fighting), and the lyrics are again simple, but quite beautiful (“And I never want to let you down/Forgive me if I slip away/When all that I’ve known is lost and found/I promise you I, I’ll come back to you one day). Someone at the forums over at Amazon mentioned the theory that the song was based on Groban’s recent breakup with longtime girlfriend January Jones (her name is January, the song is called February…get it? *rolls eyes*), but I suppose Groban (and perhaps Ms. Jones) are the only ones who know if this is true or not.

Another notable track is So She Dances, which lyrically seems like the English language equivalent of Groban’s song Mi Morena (which is in Spanish and is also about watching a woman dance. Hmm, I’m sensing a trend here; perhaps Groban has some sort of voyeur fetish going on?). All joking aside, the song is less about actually dancing and more about a relationship (“When I close my eyes I can see/The spotlights are bright/On you and me/We’ve got the floor/And you’re in my arms/How could I ask for more?”). The slow melody and Groban’s beautiful voice intertwine perfectly and create a wonderful song.

In Her Eyes follows and is also a favorite. The song begins with heavy drums and keyboards and immediately picks up the tempo from the ballad before it. The first verse builds steadily to a catchy chorus, as Groban powerfully sings “I am not a hero/I am not an angel/I am just a man/A man who’s trying to love her/Unlike any other/In her eyes, I am”. The upbeat tempo is welcomed between the ballads on the album, and the chorus is one that will easily stick with you long after you’ve finished listening to the album. This song would do great if released as a single (I’m betting this one and February Song will be released as singles in the future).

A song I was excited for before hearing was Now Or Never, which Groban collaborated with singer Imogen Heap on. Since hearing Heap’s music on the Garden State soundtrack, I’ve been a fan, though it seems she’s forgotten to bring any of her quirky sound or charisma to this song. I don’t want to be misunderstood, the song isn’t bad, and plenty of people have stated that it’s their favorite. However, I don’t feel too connected to it. Groban works out his upper register again during the verses, and the melody is decent, but the song isn’t interesting enough to hold my attention.

With all of Groban’s albums, it’s either the foreign language songs that make the album, or the English language ones, and with this disc, it’s definitely the latter. Un Dia Llegara marks the first Spanish language song, and despite Ramon Stagnaro’s beautiful work on the Spanish guitar, the song also fails to impress me. Then again, I’ve never been much of a fan of Groban’s Spanish language songs (save Alejate) anyway. L’Ultima Notte is in Italian, and though beautifully performed, sounds quite similar to some of the songs on Closer (Groban’s second studio album), which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I was expecting something that was a bit more unique. Solo Por Ti is in Spanish, and again, though lovely, lacks anything noteworthy about it.

Un Giorno Por Noi is the last song that’s not sung in English, and you’ll probably recognize it as the theme from the 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet (there known as A Time For Us). The song begins with an amazingly beautiful cello solo, and fades into Groban’s vocals, but the cello seems to be the highlight of the song. Once again, Groban’s vocal talent is flawless and even stunning at times, but the song seems to hold no emotion, excitement or depth, and is often skipped.

One of the few things I kept hearing about Awake before it was released was that Groban collaborated with the legendary acappella South African group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Together, the two musicians have offered Lullaby and Weeping. The first of the two is entirely acappella, and hauntingly beautiful. Groban’s voice harmonizes perfectly with the members of Ladysmith, and together their voices blend well and create a perfect lullaby. Weeping turned out to be quite interesting. Before listening to the song, I read the lyrics and fell in love with them (“He built a wall of steel and flame/And men with guns, to keep it tame/Then, standing back, he made it plain/That the nightmare would never rise again/But the fear and the fire and the guns remain”). I knew the song would become a quick favorite, but after hearing it, I changed my mind. I’m still not sure how I feel about Weeping. The song is upbeat and lively and almost sounds like an authentic African war cry, but perhaps that’s why I don’t like it. Lyrics that hold such a strong message seem to get lost on a bouncy and loud melody, and though the song sounds nice and is fun to listen to, I think I expected it to have a much bigger impact on me.

Once again, Groban saves the best for last, with the final song on the album, Machine. On his last album, the last song was Never Let Go with Deep Forest as the collaborator, though this time around he’s working with none other than jazz great Herbie Hancock. Like with Never Let Go, Machine is a bit different from what you’d expect a song by Josh Groban to be. The song is filled with heavy drums and other instrumentation (including a nice mixture of strings and horns, giving the song Hancock’s trademark jazz touch with a bit of Groban’s trademark classical music sound in it). Groban even seems to sing the song differently; his voice is powerful in a different way as he cries, “There’s no heart, there’s no heart/And I’ve spent all this time feeling/Something you can’t feel at all/You’re a machine/Oh, you’re a machine.” Groban sings with so much emotion that can easily feel his frustration and pain with the person he’s singing about (and for the record, I’ve played this song 29 times…I think I’m in love with it).

Awake really does take some time to sink in. Musically, the album is quite different than any of Groban’s previous work, it’s easy to overlook the better songs and focus on some of the less remarkable ones during the first few listens. Josh Groban is still undeniably one of the most talented artists around, and once again, he has found the right producers and songwriters (as well as stepping up himself as the producer and songwriter for several songs) to highlight his amazing talent.

Rating: 200px-4_stars.svg

Track Listing
1. Mai
2. You Are Loved (Don’t Give Up)
3. Un Dia Llegara
4. February Song
5. L’Ultima Notte
6. So She Dances
7. In Her Eyes
8. Solo Por Ti
9. Now Or Never
10. Un Giorno Per Noi
11. Lullaby – (with Ladysmith Black Mambazo)
12. Weeping – (with Ladysmith Black Mambazo)
13. Machine – (with Herbie Hancock)

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGLSk3AVcUU]
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