When the venerable Boston radio station WBCN went off the air in 2009, the city lost a vital piece of its rock n’ roll history and a powerful supporter of local music. For several decades, no local event got more ink than the annual WBCN Rock N’ Roll Rumble — a battle of the bands where the city’s finest dueled it out for a healthy dose of local press, cash money, free studio time, and, purportedly, a free pass into the big leagues. As the years went by, however, most Rumble champions seemed to flame-out in spectacular fashion. Before the Dresden Dolls eradicated the supposed Curse of the Rumble in 2003, a Rumble title to was to a Boston band as an Academy Award was to Cuba Gooding Jr.
2001s Rumble champion was a mutton-chopped Berklee graduate by the name of William McCauley III, better known to the recording world as Bleu. Though still largely known only to a select handful, Bleu has in many ways defied the Curse of the Rumble. Columbia Records picked up his second LP, 2003s Redhead, and made him a label priority, securing him face time on late night television and licensing his music for several major motion pictures. The pendulum swung the other way almost as quickly. Predictable label drama insured that a follow up to Redhead would languish on the shelf for years. Despite some positive notices in Entertainment Weekly, Bleu’s brilliant ELO homage Alpaca’s Orgling (billed to the one-off power pop supergroup L.E.O.) was doomed to “best album you’ve never heard” status without major label muscle behind it.
Beset by label woes, Bleu avoided the grim prospect of a non-musical career by moving to Los Angeles, where he became an in-demand songwriter for Top 40 acts like Selena Gomez and the Jonas Brothers. For his fourth proper LP, the accurately titled Four, Bleu decided to hustle up a production budget via the Internet (the modern day equivalent of passing a hat around). He raised close to $40,000 though Kickstarter.com, a healthy sum for an artist who draws less than 200 people when he returns to play his adopted hometown.
The grainy late ’70s photo of our composer and his father that graces the cover of Four may seem like a nod to Matthew Sweet’s 100% Fun, yet this album finds Bleu straying pretty far from the confines of power pop. Bleu kicks off the album on familiar ground with the charging “Singin’ in Tongues”, a Hold Steady-ish kiss off to uninspired musicians. With the hook heavy “B.O.S.T.O.N.”, Bleu unsubtly reaches for something that could potentially be played between innings at Fenway. After the shimmering string-laden ballad “How Blue”, the album takes an unexpected left turn when the Gospel rave-up “Dead in the Mornin’” is cautiously faded in. By letting the track slowly spring to life, Bleu is clearly attempting to lessen the listener’s shock at this abrupt change in direction. His elastic voice may lack the grit of a bona fide gospel singer, yet Bleu sounds surprisingly comfortable working within the genre. He conjures up the ghost of Otis Redding on “In Love with My Lover”, the quietly devastating album highlight and one of the most revealing song’s we’ve heard from Bleu.
$40,000 is hardly an extravagant production budget, yet every dollar sounds as if it was put to good use here. Teeming with strings, horns, and even a stray harpsichord solo, the album is as ornately produced as any major label album released this year. It’s kind of a pity then that Bleu didn’t dream quite as big lyrically as he did musically. The ’80s white boy soul of “When the Shit Hits the Fan” would’ve easily found a home on the soundtrack to some big-budget romantic comedy were it not called “When the Shit Hits the Fan”. “I’ll Know It When I See It” goes nowhere fast, and the ominous “Evil Twin” veers off into Rivers Cuomo territory (evil, present day Rivers Cuomo). It takes a pair of back-to-back ballads to dutifully right the ship before the final curtain. The soaring “You Catch More Flies With Honey Than Vinegar” sounds downright economical at six minutes, and the toe-tapping “Everything Is Fine” plays like a lost b-side from Paul McCartney’s Ram. Bleu even drops some McCartney-esque scatting into the song’s final moments for good measure.
If you’re willing to forgive the album it’s few cringe-worthy moments, you’ll find Four a rewarding if slightly erratic experience. The generous folks who helped make this album possible should rest easy knowing that their money was well spent. A hit album may no longer be within Bleu’s grasp, but there’s no reason to suspect he won’t enjoy a long career as a sought-after producer/songwriter behind the scenes.