[15 February 2009]
Tyrone Wells has worn a lot of hats in his day. A decade ago, Wells was singing lead in a Christian rock band called Skypark, who had just released their debut on Epic subsidiary Word Records and been nominated for a Dove Award, the Christian music world’s equivalent of the Grammys. Skypark was a noisy, brash alt-punk group whose underproduced efforts sound decidedly ‘90s in hindsight, and when the group failed to catch on, Wells wisely broke off for a solo career. Several years, three small-label full-lengths, and innumerable college coffee shops later, Wells struck a deal with Universal in 2006 and released his major-label debut, Hold On, early the following year.
Hold On sounded nothing like his work with Skypark; it was a funk-tinged set following in the footsteps of Marc Broussard’s blue-eyed soul. Showcasing Wells’s weighty baritone, the album had serious heft, though Wells wasn’t quite able to summon the force and emotion that Broussard evokes. It sounded poised to invade triple-A radio. That didn’t happen, but Wells did manage to land a slew of placements in prime-time dramedys along the way.
Remain sees Wells moving into a straight-ahead mainstream pop/rock sound, dropping most of the influences from black music of any sort. Gone are the gospel overtones, the funky clavinet, and the soulful, bluesy vocal inflections that pervaded his last effort. Instead, Wells veers toward Britain, layering wispy atmospherics in the vein of Coldplay and Snow Patrol over Top 40 power ballads. He works mostly in higher, lighter vocal ranges than on Hold On, including liberal amounts of falsetto. The songs are, without exception, smoothly consonant and structured in recognizable patterns, and are likely to be enjoyed by fans of acts like Vertical Horizon, Matt Nathanson, or most anything else associated with Aware Records.
“Along the Way”, in particular, favorably recalls Nathanson’s “Car Crash”, with its talky, heartfelt chorus. “In Between the Lines”, a piano-driven ode to searching for one’s dreams, starts off like the Fray but settles into a comfortable Vertical Horizon-like alterna-pop framework for the refrain. It works well, but the backing choir and orchestral flourishes that carry the tune to its end hobble its effectiveness. “Enough”‘s spooky introduction and vulnerable melodic lines land somewhere in the neighborhood of Augustana and the Goo Goo Dolls, though it’s hard to argue that the song is as successful in what it’s trying to accomplish as anything either of those bands has released on their last couple of albums.
“Along the Way” and “Enough”, unfortunately, are probably the best of the bunch, and most of the songs on Remain are only passable when not listened to very closely. In shedding the soul and funk influences of his last effort, Wells robs his own voice of what power it had, and here he sounds tired and bored rather than inspiring. His songwriting clutches at profundity, but ends up mostly empty-handed. He reaches for the simple, straightforward earnestness that ties together groups as disparate as Simple Minds, Counting Crows, and Copeland, but ultimately the efforts aren’t nearly as compelling as any of these. The choruses are weak, the vocal lines meandering and stilted, the lyrics unmemorable and unmemorably sung.
“Sink or Swim” is disjunct, with a great chorus that doesn’t fit at all with the rest of the song. “All Broken Hearts” features one of the least compelling “hallelujah” choruses ever pressed to disc. Nowhere do Wells’s attempts at emotionalism and sincerity fall flatter. Vague lines about searching for meaning and finding beauty pervade Wells’s lyrics. “More”‘s chorus predictably contains the line “I know there’s something more”, but what that more is is never really clear. Perhaps it’s God, perhaps love, perhaps some vibrant philosophy of life, but the tune is such a Daughtry-lite snoozer that it’s hard to stay awake to tell. If you want it to be God, try Casting Crowns; if you want it to be love, try Black Lab; if you want it to be something else, try Test Your Reflex. This is pretty much the story of Wells’s entire career; he’s alright at whatever he does, but someone else is always outclassing him.