For every band or artist that is well known to the public there are hundreds of fantastic musicians and groups that most people have no clue exist. Just walk into a record store and peruse through the albums, and you’ll see what I mean (and these are people who have been signed!). If you’re lucky enough you’ll hear about some of these “unknowns” from friends, or see them at a show or festival, or just stumble upon them by accident. Back in 2003, I stumbled upon an artist that soon became one of my favorite musicians.
His name is Bleu (nee William J. McAuley III) and he recently self-released a collection of B-sides entitled Besides. (He is a big fan of puns, having two tattoos, one saying “Tattoo” and the other saying “Tatt2.”) And while these songs did not make it on to his last two albums, A Watched Pot and Four, the songs showcase the fact that Bleu knows how to write songs, and good ones at that.
Before I dive into the album itself, I just want to give a little backstory, because I could’ve easily written a full-blown entry on him (similar to my Ben Folds one).
So as I mentioned earlier, the year was 2003. Toad the Wet Sprocket had announced their reunion tour, and I scored a pair of tickets for their show at the 9:30 Club. The opening acts were Bleu and some other band I can’t recall. I went to each act’s website and listened to whatever they had. I clicked on the first track on Bleu’s site, “I Won’t Go Hollywood,” and was IMMEDIATELY hooked. I listened to the rest of the material and loved it. I somehow found a copy of his album, Redhead, at the local CD store in College Park, and was just blown away. I was even more blown away by his live performance, and how personable the guy was when I met him after his set. I ended up seeing him twice more that year, and since then, any time I’ve had a chance to see him, I have. Over the past 9 years, I’ve tried my hardest to promote his music to friends, even interviewing him in 2010 for my first foray into music journalism, when I contributed material for SlideshowRadio.com; you can view/listen to the 20-minute episode here. Basically, I’m a big supporter and believer in him as a musician and songwriter, and feel he deserves some recognition. Plus he’s a great guy.
So that’s the short version of the backstory. Now on to the record.
Like I stated earlier, Besides is a compilation of B-sides and alternate versions/demos of songs from his last two albums, so really this album is for his die-hard fans. It also means there is no fluidity to the record, instead feeling like a mixtape, bouncing around stylistically from pop/rock to electro-pop to quasi-country to acoustic demos. Still, it’s a very good collection of songs that shows off Bleu’s ability to write great songs.
The record is bookended by two of its strongest tracks, “Take Cover” and “Save It For a Rainy Day.” The first is a wonderfully written and arranged song that blends elements of pop, rock, and R&B, into a rocking waltz, which would be perfect for a slow dance. The second is a moderate rocker that could easily be the song played during the turning point of a romantic comedy, or at the very least be the perfect closer to a live show. Though they are different than each other in many ways, they also embody the elements of what makes Bleu a great songwriter. First, they both have great melodic and lyrical hooks (I actually woke up this morning with the intro of “Take Cover” in my head). Second, they both are layered with lots of instrumental and vocal tracks, but everything blends so perfectly that nothing is muddled or too overbearing. Third, both songs evoke emotion without being too sappy; the listener knows that the singer has a broken heart (or something similar) but they aren’t whining or complaining, just expressing their emotions. This may not make any sense to you as you read it, but if you listen to the songs, you’ll know what I mean. “If…” and “Can’t Be That Bad (If It Feels This Good)” are two other examples that exemplify Bleu’s ability to craft fantastic pop songs in a more “traditional” mold, but that’s not the case for all of the tracks.
As noted previously, the record is kind of all over the place sonically, with totally different sounding songs juxtaposed next to each other, making each track stand out. However, two songs stick out more than any of the others on this album: “When the Other Shoe Falls” and “Blow Up the Radio.” These are the two electro-pop tracks on the compilation and really don’t seem to fit in with the rest, though it has nothing to do with the songwriting. Both songs are extremely well crafted (the latter being co-written by Roger Manning, Jr., of Jellyfish), having elements of synth-pop from the 1980s and tinge of 1970s disco. The first sounds like a mix of George Michael and Phil Collins, while the second sounds like a remix of an unknown disco classic. Honestly, I could see these tracks being played during an 80s dance party, and no one knowing that they were relatively new.
However, the two songs epitomize why this record should not be considered an album, and should not be approached as such. There is no overarching theme, musically or lyrically, and the tracks are so disjointed from each other at times that I sometimes have a hard time listening straight through. Still, when I approach the record as a mixtape or compilation, I appreciate it much, much more. That’s because it is a showcase of Bleu’s songwriting skills, and shows how wide his range of song styles can be. And that is what makes this a really good record.
Yet, I would not recommend this record as first foray into the music of Bleu. Instead, I strongly encourage you to go to his SoundCloud page, where he has uploaded over 100 of his songs from all of his releases and projects (including four songs from Besides), which are all free to listen to. I promise you will enjoy SOMETHING on there, and most likely, will find yourself enjoying the majority of the material.
If not, well then, I just pity you.