Reviews of James Blunt and Kenneth 'Babyface' Edmonds

PoetryEnglandBee Gees (music group)James TaylorCat StevensRascal Flatts (music group)Paris Hilton

James BluntAS oxymorons go, "soft rock" wields more power than most people admit. Largely dismissed as a watered-down, blown-dry corruption of liberated youth culture, it's been shoved into the category of "guilty pleasure" practically since its inception.

As early as 1971, the great critic Lester Bangs declared war on it in a rant titled "James Taylor Marked for Death," which included the writer's fantasy of forever squelching the "adenoidal poesy" of said sensitive singer-songwriter by clocking him with a bottle of Ripple.

Since then, soft rock has been continually slaughtered in parodies (such as the online television series "Yacht Rock," which portrays the likes of Loggins & Messina as lamebrained victims of their own mellowness) and cover recordings that snicker even as they indulge in the style's sentimental oomph.

Recently the tide has turned toward appreciating certain soft-rock elders, with hip-pop favorites Gym Class Heroes helping revive Hall & Oates and power-poppers Fountains of Wayne expressing love for "Sister Golden Hair" hitmaker America.

But the tendency to not only dismiss but also to despise soft rock continues with the vilification of its current king, James Blunt, whose ballads have inspired nausea in taste monitors throughout the English-speaking world.

It's hard to defend Blunt, whose second album, "All the Lost Souls" (due Tuesday), is already receiving the predictable pans. The former member of the British cavalry has one of the most distinctive singing styles on the charts today -- distinctive like the taste of anchovy.

His tone is sharp and nasally and his phrasing full of hiccups, quavers and restless hops up into an alarmingly strong falsetto. In truth, he sounds almost exactly like Robin Gibb, whose ballistic-choirboy leads on early Bee Gees hits such as "I Started a Joke" injected some impressive weirdness into post-Beatles pop.

Because Blunt's tortured side pushes him toward a rougher sound, he also recalls Cat Stevens, the most manly and rhythmically interesting soft rocker, though the younger stud's own sense of the beat is mostly confined to a 4/4 thump.

Stevens and the Gibb brothers also earned scorn during their prime, in part because their in-your-face delivery so clearly undermined the idea that soft rock couldn't match the effect of the "real" thing.

The blatant emotionality and fierce introspection of soft rock at its best described a revolution just as significant as the one enacted by kids rioting in the streets. It was the sound of middle-class adults rethinking their whole existence -- throwing off their gray flannel suits for freer, more experimental attitudes.

Most of all, soft rock chronicles the confusion of the sexual revolution as it continues to unfold in bedrooms and across kitchen tables. Its main purveyors have always been men with enough sense of privilege to try on vulnerability, expressing existential angst at being displaced from the center of the universe.

Great soft-rock songs such as Bread's "Diary" and James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" tell stories as life-altering as any Led Zeppelin epic, and the lack of bluster makes the pain expressed unavoidable.

Blunt's ubiquitous 2005 hit "You're Beautiful" followed in this strain, its lyrics more despairing than desirous. (The best line, in which the winsome stranger Blunt wants notices that he's high as a kite, is an artful throwaway.) "All the Lost Souls" further explores Blunt's fascination with decadence and its cost in musical settings that cop directly from the gentler sides of the Bee Gees, David Bowie and the Beatles.

Purposefully derivative, suspicious of nostalgia yet addicted to it, Blunt at his best expresses a crisis particular to his own privileged peers -- the spiritual exhaustion of overly savvy kids who see baby-boomer liberation as a scam but still want to indulge. No wonder Paris Hilton loves him. He's the ideal troubadour for a clubgoer's regretted morning after.

There's plenty to scorn on "All the Lost Souls"; Blunt loves a well-worn phrase, and his attempts at humor can be surprisingly crude. But he's onto something. He's not making background music. And like his idols the Bee Gees, he might yet learn to channel the energy of those starlet-filled clubs he frequents, and make his "Main Course" yet.

In the meantime, Blunt should grab some education from the new album by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, who has been working a brilliant blend of soft rock with R&B for two decades. "Playlist" (also out Tuesday) is his loving tribute to the style, filled with elegant readings of gems such as the aforementioned Bread and Taylor songs, plus Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight," Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle," and even "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," the same Bob Dylan song Guns N' Roses covered -- demonstrating just how epic "soft" can be.

Here is a man unafraid to rep for the drippiest balladeer ever, Dan Fogelberg -- and no one will call Edmonds on it, because his restraint and care eliminate any sense of the maudlin. "Not Going Nowhere," his own lullaby to the children of his amicable divorce from Tracey Edmonds, is a new classic in the sub genre -- and could someday be a smash for his recent collaborators, soft country-rockers Rascal Flatts.

The songs on "Playlist" have been incorporated into so many people's personal lives -- weddings, anniversaries, funerals, heart-to-heart dates and solitary musings -- that no amount of snobbery can refute their power. Like it or not, Blunt's shining moments are headed for that position too. Someday he will be reclaimed by the children of the people who hate him now. Until then, he'll just have to tolerate "All the Lost Souls" topping the charts.

Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed have been released except as indicated.

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