I haven’t written much about the studio recordings because for the most part I don’t really like them. They rotate the kids through the studio as quickly as they can and it always sounds it. The cuts from a technical standpoint are generally professional (although some of my audio engineering colleagues have even questioned that aspect), but they invariably feel rushed and incomplete from an artistic standpoint. You can’t really win with this Idol set up: The live performances are better but too brief, while the studio performances are longer but fall far short of their potential.
In David’s case, my feeling has always been that he just hasn’t had the benefit of the right studio producer, one who knows what he’s capable of and how to get it. The energy of a live audience is enough to drive the dynamics of his performance into a realm of intensity that he has yet to achieve in the studio. David’s current tendency seems to be to “lay back into the lovely,” with his instrument, and although possibly a wise tactic in the midst of a long competition where vocal stress is a constant risk, it nevertheless compromises his power in the studio; on the bigger songs especially.
What we hadn’t really had until Think if Me was a song of such intimacy that David’s current studio tendencies really pay off. It was difficult at first to get past the insanely sentimental arrangement–complete with overdone glissandos, sappy violins, and a freakin’ harp for God’s sakes (I think a hiring criterion for American Idol arrangers must be a predilection for extra cheese)–but gradually I was able to appreciate what David himself had accomplished with this one, and it is quite remarkable.
His voice has never sounded better. Clear, rich, resonant, and in a strange way both round and sharp. There isn’t a hint of labor in this performance. Like Fred Astaire, whose legendary commitment to practice and craft made his flawless performances seem so utterly effortless, David sings as though a pure conduit for the plaintive heart of the song. He channels the music more than he performs it.
Ironically, though perhaps not surprisingly, David’s musical crafting is much smarter than the arrangement. The sophistication of his musical intelligence might be most evident in the melodic variations from “imagine me, trying too hard…” (at 1:43) through to “…think of those things we’ll never do…” (2:01). With all the riffing and melisma going on in popular music today, it is extremely challenging to come up with unexpected choices, but David does it with an unerring ear for restraint.
I was gratified to learn in a recent interview with Dean Kaelin, David’s voice coach, that David and his team were not terribly thrilled with the arrangement, either. They had apparently been lobbying for a jazzier, more contemporary treatment. Doesn’t surprise me in the least, and gives me hope that when the industry gets a hold of him, that he won’t capitulate his instincts to their greed. David must have had at least some impact on the ultimate approach used for the live performance (which comes after the studio recording in the weekly production sequence), because Tuesday night’s arrangement was perceptibly less saccharine than the studio version (note the dissonance added to the guitar intro for starters).
It’s incredibly easy to go overboard with R&B-rooted genre stylings but David never does (even despite encouragements in that direction from notable producers like Randy Jackson). David has what so many gifted entertainers often lack: taste. I’m convinced this is the reason that his detractors find him “boring.” These are the same people who find boring the sumptuously subtle in any artistic form. These are the people, God bless them, who don’t even notice something unless it’s completely over-the-top. There is plenty of bombast in American popular entertainment today. I’ll take my David Archuleta without all the extras, thanks.