Take Five: College contemporary rules the airwaves

For whatever ungodly reason, I’ve been hearing an inordinate amount of Hootie and the Blowfish lately. Whether it’s the radio or friends humming it in my presence, Hootie’s presence made me hearken back to the old days when stores used to sell albums beneath the “adult contemporary” genre-heading, encompassing such notorious greats as Sheryl Crow, Sting, Lyle Lovett and, of course, Hootie. Labeled so, the genre turned out to be a miserable failure, as most CD-purchasing individuals under the age of 33 found that, even if they liked the music in such a category, they couldn’t stand the thought of owning “adult contemporary” – a word grouping that brought thoughts of Ford Tauruses, cheap chardonnay, semi-swanky singles bars and anything else that contributes to a sufficiently boring, adult life.

Instead of renouncing the title, though, I would like to alter it in favor of a new one: College Contemporary. Think Guster, Dave Matthews, Dispatch, O.A.R., John Mayer and Jack Johnson.

It’s the category for the up-and-comers, for the new guys who haven’t made it quite yet in the big world, but will create a firestorm of popularity through file-sharing programs and the amazingly effective word of mouth.

These people tend to be beautiful, with an inclination towards the acoustic and the mellow. Love ballads are frequent, but when they’re not showing their sensitive, partially embittered emotional selves, they’re pushing towards creating something unique and original, even though it’s all really been done before. Dissonance is impermissible, and having a sense of humor is invaluable.

For this week, I selected five artists that tend to exemplify the college contemporary behavior, save one of them.

Matt Nathanson – “Wide Eyed and Full”

Sweet voiced and quietly angsty, Matt Nathanson brings Goo Goo Dolls frontman Johnny Rzeznick to mind. His music consists only of voice and guitar, with a lot of sustained pedal chords, rich, thick and melodious. The guitar is driving and heavy, much like Dashboard Confessional (though without the screaming) or Ani diFranco in her harder stages. What’s remarkable, though, is the lack of production behind his performance.

Nathanson’s voice sounds remarkably naked – there is only reverb in a small section of the pre-chorus when he turns on his falsetto. Besides that, however, it sounds like an authentic live recording, and Nathanson seems to have no desire to alter and manipulate the slight imperfections that occur in the recording process. The simplistic effect gives “Wide Eyed and Full” an honesty that rarely surfaces in the folk-pop genre. Like John Mayer, Nathanson has the lyrical sensitivity and easily digestible guitar that give him collegiate credibility.

Jason Mraz – “Curbside Prophet”

Jason Mraz can be thought of as a hodgepodge of the most popular college genres: folk, rock and jam bands, with a small trace of hip-hop savvy. A mix of acoustic and slide guitars, banjo and laidback drumming make the song happily insignificant.

There’s nothing special to the music – the chord progression is stale but refreshingly so. Mraz simply wants to make a simple, catchy hillbilly anthem, and he pulls it off with flair and humor. He is, like G. Love, unashamed of singing self- referential hip-hop rhymes in a guitar-based, folky bluegrass tradition: “I’m a sucker for Philly, got a natural ability, geared to freestyle, look at my flexibility, dangerous on the mic my ghetto hat’s cocked slight, all the ladies say, ‘yo that kid is crazy.’” He’s been popping up here and there on some of my friends’ playlists, and I’m guessing that his music will soon become standard Williams party fare.

Porcupine Tree – “Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before it is Recycled”

Though the mandolin is rarely thought of as an exotic instrument, something about it gives songs a smooth remoteness that helps differentiate them from pure guitar-based music. Porcupine Tree opens “Last Chance” on a mandolin, and from there continues on a surprising progression of instrumentation, continually adding new instruments with regularity. The first half of the song is reminiscent of Crosby, Stills and Nash, with vintage, high tenor harmonies that lack vibrato. In the second half, though, Porcupine Tree ceases singing and inserts an eerie, science fiction audio clip that predicts the end of Earth. Unfortunately, the band makes the regrettable choice of using synthesized woodwinds as a way of augmenting the uncanny sense of the song. Instead, it sounds like James Galway trying to improvise “The Wind Beneath my Wings” over a rock song – not the desired result. It is lighthearted, though, and thoroughly entertaining.

Government Mule – “Soulshine”

These guys are the epitome of white-boy blues. From their picture, the Government Mule duo looks like a pair of friends you might find in a Harley bar. Vocalist Warren Hayes sounds a like Joe Cocker plus 10 years of heavy smoking. He manages, though, to emit a startling tenderness amidst the accompaniment of dueling guitars. It’s bluesy enough to be considered real by aficionados, but there’s a more mainstream undertone that makes it a darling of the collegiates, especially on the West Coast.

Hot Water Music – “Where We Belong”

Okay, so here’s where I lied. This song doesn’t belong at all to the newly-founded “college contemporary” category, but I’m hoping to spread the Hot Water gospel to a friendly crowd that would appreciate its talent and power. HWM derives its sound from a punk core, adding its own ardently emotional signature to the typically superficial genre. Chuck Ragan shouts unintelligibly into the microphone, and though we can only pick out a word here and there, we know that there is, in his gravely and masculine (and mostly on-pitch) screams, a deep care for whatever it is he’s singing about. The passion is so contagious, in fact, that audiences often cry at HWM concerts. “Where We Belong” is no exception – the band starts off strong from the get-go and never ceases until the end. It is, perhaps, this intensity that gives HWM songs their credibility and beauty.

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