Music Reviews 2011 – David Cook – This Loud Morning
David Cook, erstwhile Tulsan and former American Idol, has just released his sophomore album entitled This Loud Morning. Now, three years since his Idol crowning, this album showcases a more seasoned, reflective Cook. With this new release, Cook is simply better than ever! That is, of course, on this side of his highlight filled, winning Idol run.
Top Idol alum are known for getting a royal treatment on their first, post-Idol album–often pushing the artist into genres that may not fit them. The artists are seemingly just happy to be there at that point. The resulting albums are often less reflective of the artists themselves than they are of the 19 Entertainment (Idol’s Production Company) projection for the artist. The albums, even the best ones, often have a “hastily assembled” feel to them. Cook’s first post-Idol album fit that mold perfectly.
Cook’s self-titled debut, despite being completed pretty quickly, was also very good, with seven songs I truly liked. But, like other’s first post-Idol releases, it seemingly reflected his wonder at being suddenly inside the hallowed graces (and studios) of the Music Industry—after several years of being an outsider trying to get in. And the album did come across as slightly disjunctive. It was a terrific album….but it wasn’t necessarily the best that Cook had in him. He had to work through that wonderment, paying some dues, to pave the way for future successes.
This Loud Morning, released June 24th, showcases a more seasoned, but still thoughtful Cook. The new album shows a rare maturity in the world of Rock excess. Cook is tackling his place within the music industry head-on. He knows that his long-term place is constantly being reevaluated. He feels the weight of the question, “what have you done for me lately?” And he seems to know that he alone is responsible if something doesn’t work and is diligently working at not letting that happen. And he is surrounding himself with professionals.
Having followed American Idol nearly from the beginning (I missed the whole first season with the exception of its finale), I have endured a ton of mediocre (and worse) performers, for the thrill of finding a dozen or so artists that I truly like for the long haul. For my money, David Cook was the best of the best among Idol contestants, from all of the seasons. He didn’t necessarily have the greatest vocal range or most impressive chops, but he was the most consistent Idol contestant. And he did make some brilliant choices (both on which songs to sing and on when to go big or stay true to a melody) during his Idol run.
To illustrate my point, does anyone else remember his Eleanor Rigby? His Billie Jean? His Mariah Carey and Dolly Parton covers (Always Be My Baby and Little Sparrow)? Cook was the king of the surprisingly brilliant performance. He killed it, almost every time–especially when you thought he was out of his comfort zone and might choke (remember his First Time Ever I Saw Your Face?). And winning that season was a huge accomplishment. David Archuleta was as formidable as any 2d place finisher ever on Idol, right up there with Adam Lambert and Clay Aiken. Archuleta nailed nearly as many performances as Cook down their stretch run. It felt like an epic battle at the time–the best of the ten Idol seasons.
Cook, for all his top of the world accomplishments, was inevitably destined for re-entry back to the real world–the world of writing and performing your own songs for fickle fans with ever shortening attention spans. He was bound to come back to the Midwestern earth that spawned him. Many of us loved him because he was one of us–albeit a uniquely talented one with enormous drive and ambition. Cook’s Idol ride was meteoric and brilliant–but it was just his point of departure. The real question was “how would he fare when The Time of his Life faded into the rest of his life-when others had taken his Idol crown for themselves?” How would he fare doing mostly his own songs? Would the Idol masses follow him wherever he took them? Only time would tell.
Since his Idol run and career launch, Cook has been on a downward slide from the unsustainable Idol high. His performance at the Major League Baseball All-Star game festivities in 2009 was credible but uninspiring. It seemed to officially exemplify his drop from the pedestal. And, it somehow seemed natural that he would come across as pedestrian while playing music for the greatest baseball players in the world. They, of all people, know that the best of the best can’t be awesome every night. There are occasional slumps and lulls. Cook was still credible, he just didn’t seem to be soaring anymore. And, like seeing an older hitter mired in a slump, you can’t help but wonder if they’ll ever come out of it. Seeing Cook below that Idol-high pedestal made you wonder if he would ever recapture his Idol magic.
We now have that answer. This Loud Morning delivers on a lot of levels. It features some stirring vocal highs, some radio-friendly ear candy, and some thoughtful, evocative and intelligent lyrics. Produced by Matt Serletic (famous for previous work with Willie Nelson, Aerosmith, and Matchbox Twenty), the album is quite well put-together. The highs are higher, the low-points are minimized, and the whole-package works nicely. Serletic clearly brought out the best in Cook and his bandmates, taking all the time necessary to get it done “right.” The album feels like a unified whole. They can all be proud of their work.
David, from the beginning, has called himself a “word nerd.” He enjoys a well-played “turn of phrase.” His songwriting clearly reflects these characteristics. He likes juxtaposing upbeat song textures with darker lyrics. His case in point reference (discussed on Cook’s own Official Website) was the Police’s Every Breath You Take. You find yourself happily singing along….and it’s only later, when you start paying more attention to the words, that you discover the darker themes and meaning.
In light of reading that discussion on his website, I realized that I hadn’t completely embraced Cook’s lyrics. They are poetic, sometimes “word-nerdy”, and occasionally I don’t know what he is singing about. Sure, many of his songs are lyrically very straightforward. But, more than one have obscured meanings and obtuse word-play. Even songs I really enjoy, have a built-in nebulous quality to them. Goodbye to the Girl is a great example of that dynamic. It is earnest, heartfelt and, at the same time, completely non-specific about this girl who drove him to the brink.
Vocally, This Loud Morning recaptures some of the Idol vocal magic. Several songs highlight the top of Cook’s range. Among those songs are: Circadian, We Believe, Fade Into Me, Hard to Believe, Paper Heart and Goodbye to the Girl. Cook seems to know that we love it when he goes big vocally. So, he obliges on a pretty big scale on This Loud Morning.
But, what I like most about this album isn’t the good vocals. It’s the total package, the start to finish quality, the details. Serletic’s touches accentuate for the better. His focus on details sharpened the band’s focus on details, from kick-drum patterns, to flaw-free vocals, to peddles-down piano atmospherics, to children’s choirs, etc. Serletic led the band down every path Cook and his co-workers could imagine (and then some), working till they got them all right. It took a year and a half, but in the end, there aren’t any half-assed songs. They’re all solid. I’m not kidding. Some are stellar on first listen and others grow into your consciousness over time and I’m a big Cook believer again. The more I listen, the more I like the choices they made. The more I listen, the more I like, period.
Cook co-wrote every song on the album. Working with numerous proven performers, including John Rzeznik (of Goo Goo Dolls fame), Greg Wattenberg (famously worked with Train/Daughtry), David Hodges (best known for his Evanescence gig), and Chris Destefano (famous for work with Idol alums Archuleta & DeWyze), Cook’s songwriting blends his love for anthems with his “keep it in my wheelhouse” approach. In Cook’s own words, he wanted the record to be “more intimate, but also more grandiose, and really stretch the boundaries of those two ideals.” These are songs that Cook will sing night after night for the next year or more. He had to create what he can sustain and deliver. So he did.
Cook’s band features Neil Tiemann on lead guitar, and Andy Skib on rhythm guitar/keyboards, Monty Anderson (who replaced Joey Clement) on bass, and Kyle Peek on drums. All, minus Anderson, are listed as former members of the Tulsa-based Midwest Kings–where Cook was mostly a supporting cast member. The band suits Cook just fine. Cook spoke of Serletic as advocating the “right sounds at the right time for the right reasons.” Similarly, regarding the band, Cook favored the “right” band members for the “right” songs over the best musicians or best songs, etc. These guys are all competent, no question. But, like other good, modern rock bands (e.g 3 Doors Down), you just don’t expect to hear any Jimmy Page or David Gilmore-like guitar solos from them. They’re just good, blue-collar, rock musicians making their place in the modern world of music.
My favorite songs on the album are: Goodbye to the Girl, Paper Heart, We Believe, Fade Into You, Hard to Believe, Time Marches On, Rapid Eye Movement, and Circadian. The high points on these songs hearken my favorite Coldplay and U2. I’m a sucker for the arena-ready, sing-along chorus and the layered vocals. Cook is clearly growing his craft….and he won’t go wrong while leading thousands in a sing-along, hand waver. In his own words, “the growth in this record is musical, it’s lyrical, it’s emotional, and what I’ve hit on is something that a lot of people can relate to.” After several listens, I think he’s got that just about right. But, I will concede that you will have to decide that for yourself.
The i-Tunes Deluxe version of the album includes an informative, entertaining, 18 minute Making of This Loud Morning video and two bonus songs (This Is Not the Last Time and Let Me Fall For You). Both songs fit thematically and could have made the album. They would have fit better earlier in the song order though, because Circadian and Rapid Eye Movement (the first and last songs on the standard issue album) make perfect thematic bookends for the album—sharing the same “somebody save me” chorus excerpt. In fact, Rapid Eye Movement stands to be an excellent show closer, with the aforementioned peddle-down piano atmospherics bridge, yielding to a background choir singing “somebody save me.” Coldplay never did it better (though they did it pretty well).
And in all of this discussion of the new album, I haven’t even mentioned the first single. The Last Goodbye, released back in April, was co-written with Ryan Tedder of One Republic. Tedder is as prolific as anyone in music lately, with the exception of maybe Will.I.Am of the Black-Eyed Peas. Collaboration with them adds instant credibility–in the conventional wisdom of mainstream radio. The Last Goodbye is the first of many radio-friendly, potential ear-worms on the album. I suppose I like it well enough–but I like many of the other songs more. There are several good options here for the next single. I can’t wait to see which one will be next.
I will admit that I am biased. I am a fan. David Cook has earned my respect. I support his music. But looking at the i-Tunes charts (This Loud Morning was 88th at last look), I can’t help but wonder where all the Idol Season 7 fans are? Unlike his debut–which came out of the blocks strong, this record has barely made a splash yet. I can only hope that folks will give it a chance. It is a very good record. But perhaps it isn’t as good as the fans are fickle.
On the strength of This Loud Morning, I began a quest to hear Cook’s pre-Idol music. I learned that Cook had four albums as a frontman (which excludes Midwest Kings records) pre-Idol. Three were with the band Axium. The fourth was a 2006 solo release entitled Analog Heart. None of these records are currently commercially available. Some songs from them are on YouTube as rudimentary “videos.” They aren’t so much videos as they are pictorial accompaniments to recordings of Cook’s pre-Idol songs. The sound quality varies from crappy to pretty good. But striking among the 8-10 songs I sampled was the song quality. They were collectively heavier than everything he’s done since and the ballads were more evocative, “haunting” even. Cook was very definitely influenced by the Grunge era. And these songs, more than anything since Idol, give indication to the nature and quality of his instincts. Very quickly you hear that Cook’s musical instincts are rock-solid, and pre-date his Idol run by a long way.
This side foray into Cook’s past, as a consequence of enjoying Cook’s current release, has me amped to hear more from him. I can’t wait until we see Cook without the constraints that come with 19 Entertainment sponsorship. I’d love to hear the product of a royal studio treatment done to some of those Axium and Cook solo works. Give us some more edge, some heavier rock, and some unadulterated Cook—and then overproduce it to the gills, with all the bells, whistles, orchestral layering and winning kick-drum patterns.
Here’s hoping that he’s got another couple dozen good records in him. My hats off…..and my earbuds are in.
If you haven’t checked out This Loud Morning, what are you waiting for? And while you’re at it, check out his website–davidcookofficial.com. And if you’re a serious fan, go for the YouTube action. JDPF
PS: “Support the musicians you like!”