The American Idol judge's compilation plays it safe, but does enough to meet expectations.
Some people might wonder how Randy Jackson's Music Club can be called a "solo debut" for American Idol judge Randy Jackson when he doesn't do any of the singing or rapping on the album. Answer: It's Jackson's album because he assembled all the performers, from Idol costar Paula Abdul to Travis Tritt, and he produced the songs.
Others might wonder why Jackson has a CD with his name on the spine at all. Well, he is an experienced musician and producer, an industry vet really, who's more than qualified for the task. His website and press releases are quite good at listing his musical endeavors, including his work with "superstars such as Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, *NSYNC, Madonna, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Journey, Billy Joel, Herbie Hancock, Destiny's child, and countless others". I don't blame him for that. If I had any part in an album as big as Whitney Houston's debut, you'd never hear the end of it. I'd be like, "You know the dude who popped the popcorn for the crew when she recorded 'Saving All My Love for You'? That was me!"
Speaking of "countless others", my favorite of Jackson's work would be his contributions, as co-executive producer and bass player, to Wild Seed - Wild Flower (1994) by former Arrested Development band member Dionne Farris. That's long before Idol came along. You can also see Randy Jackson hanging out with Farris and friends, and strumming his guitar, in the video for "Hopeless", from the Love Jones soundtrack. That I've been waiting all this time for a follow-up to Wild Seed - Wild Flower either proves that the album is just that good or that I'm an optimist. I hope it's both (although my hope only proves the latter).
At any rate, we shouldn't let the spectacle of American Idol blind us from Jackson's obvious skill. He has more than enough talent, and industry connections, to justify a solo album. In this case, he puts his skills as a producer to full use, much like Timbaland did for his own record Shock Value, and takes it back to the old school, like Quincy Jones did for Back on the Block. Granted, Timbaland and, minimally, Jones appeared vocally on their albums where Jackson does not. Also, Jones's Back on the Block is way more cerebral and adventurous than Randy Jackson's Music Club was ever intended to be, so when you think of Music Club, it's safer to think along the lines of a One Tree Hill compilation.
But the thing that initially baffled me was the title. Why is it called Randy Jackson's Music Club? Why not keep Jackson as producer and musician and get the show's official stamp of approval to call it American Idol Music Club? Or why "Music Club"? Wouldn't Randy Jackson's Playlist or Randy Jackson & Friends work just as well?
Here's my theory. This album's "music club" isn't a physical place, like a nightclub or country club, and it's not a music service that offers to "give" you 50 CDs for the price of one. Instead, it represents the approach to this record, which consists of what might be termed "moderate inclusion", or a type of Goldilocks Effect. Basically, the idea is to shoot for the middle, which some of us might refer to as the elusive and much maligned "mainstream".
If you've watched any season of American Idol, the format and approach of this album shouldn't be a surprise. Where Idol subjects its contestants to different musical themes ("Songs of Motown", "Songs of the Beatles", country songs, and so forth), Randy Jackson's Music Club cycles through a set of genre exercises, ranging from the lone rap contribution (Crunk Squad's "Like A", with minor assistance from Ghostface Killah) to country, pop, gospel, R&B, and a smidgeon of rock. Maybe Idol wouldn't host a night of hip-hop songs, since, after all, everybody on the show says, "It's a singing competition!", so we can chalk up the inclusion of "Like A" to Jackson's eclectic tastes.
As we've seen from Idol's group songs and celebrity-assisted episodes, the "music club" offers interesting and, in some cases, unthinkable pairings, along with baton-passing numbers. That's why we've got country star John Rich belting it out with R&B star Anthony Hamilton on Michael Buble's "Home". The Randy Jackson version highlights a fiddle solo that's rather nice, too. Meanwhile Van Hunt, John McLaughlin, and Jason Mraz are getting busy on "Something to Believe In", while Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, Travis Tritt, and Lucy Woodward team up for "Willing to Try". Idol runner-up Bo Bice sung it on his Real Thing Album (2005), but it was originally written by Sambora and John Shanks. This version of the tune showcases Travis Tritt's rugged vocals. Tritt sounds like an outlaw in the old West, and I like that a lot. Contrast the mood of that piece with the gospel track, "I Understand", featuring Kim Burrell, Rance Allen, Bebe Winans, Hezekiah Walker's Love Fellowship Tabernacle Church Choir, and Mariah Carey. Please be aware that Mariah doesn't contribute much to the song, mainly her trademark high-pitched vocal range.
As for the songs and performances themselves, it's a lot like sitting through American Idol without the visuals, and with recognizable names instead of contestants. Despite the genre-hopping, the collection plays it safe, never going to the extremes, never stretching the boundaries of a given category, but doing enough to meet expectations. However, Joss Stone's "Just Walk on By", a marching, horn-punctuated partial update of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Walk on By", is three minutes of spotlight-stealing joy, while R&B titan Sam Moore's work with Angie Stone and Keb' Mo' on "Wang Dang Doodle" is an amusing foot-tapper.
The final product makes sense, given Randy Jackson's persona as the Idol judge who sits, ideologically speaking, between soft and mushy Paula "you-look-great-tonight" Abdul and perennial "bad" guy Simon "that-was-absolutely-appalling" Cowell. Randy Jackson is the guy who's known for his use of slang, using the nondescript term of endearment "dawg" (as in, "What's goin' on, dawg?") and gauging lukewarm performances with a concerned, "Um, it was just ah-ite for me." If it's "ah-ite", or "all right", that means it's mediocre. I just wish I could receive a direct deposit payment, even if it's only a dime, for every response to Music Club that's going to use Jackson's "It's ah-ite for me, dawg" line against him.
There's an argument to be made here that the attempt to appeal to everyone is a mistake, that switching from genre to genre disrupts any hope for album continuity and results in the audience being fond of some, but not all, of the songs. These arguments miss the point, I think, because Randy Jackson's Music Club isn't about making a cohesive album, or even a classic one, any more than American Idol is concerned with finding the next Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross, or Billy Joel. It's about enjoying the moment and capitalizing upon it. Many of Music Club's selections are demonstrative in this regard, focused as they are, lyrically, on immediate needs and circumstances. "Pick the right songs," the Idol judges always say. These songs add up to a "right now" album for a "right now" audience. Its expiration date, as well as our use for the contents, might be up before the end of the year. But you can still sneak in a couple of spins in the meantime.
A buddy asked me, "Who would want to listen to all those styles in one sitting?" Well, as a matter of fact, I would, and I'm thinking I'm not alone in this. Throw in some heavy metal, substitute some gangsta or political rap in place of the crunk joint already included, some house, some classical, and a couple of Bollywood soundtrack songs, and I'd be good to go. As for the argument that releases like this are pandering to the "mainstream", I've always suspected that if our "mainstream" artists could switch places with our "underground" and "indie" artists, our arguments wouldn't change, only the names. We'd just say, "I'm sick of hearing this crap on the radio! The masses are so gullible! Why can't Justin Timberlake get more airplay?" We have a tendency to point out the gullibility of "the masses" as if we ourselves aren't members of the group. Leaving music politics and theory aside, though, here we're left with an album that's solid enough to serve its purpose (i.e. to sell a few records on the heels of Jackson's celebrity and the Idol mystique) but not solid enough to be memorable.
The biggest shock is probably the album's lack of Idol presence, aside from the Katharine McPhee-Elliott Yamin duet "Real Love" and Paula Abdul's mini-comeback on the competent opener, "Dance Like There's No Tomorrow". In particular, the Abdul track avoids potential pitch problems by using the computerized vocal technique that makes everyone from T-Pain to Snoop Dogg sound like a robot on Battlestar Galactica. I'll be happy when the vocoder/talk-box/Auto-tune trend is over. But the Abdul, McPhee, and Yamin instances are where the Idol-related appearances end. If you were looking for a Fantasia-Kelly Clarkson rendition of "A Moment Like This" (hypothetically speaking) or a Ruben Studdard-Clay Aiken collaboration (please, Mr. Jackson, don't do this), you won't get it here. Sorry, no Carrie Underwood or Daughtry either. I guess you'll have to keep your fingers crossed for Volume Two.