Pre-Release Album Review –
Steve Grand’s “All–American Boy“
Official Release Date – March 24, 2015.
Music is truly the universal language. As a word-smith and a former opera singer myself, I often use music as the inspirational source of my own works. Steve has already been there for me once with my werewolves of Sparrows Hollow. With the release of his first complete album, I think I may have found a musical landscape that I can root the main character of another work of mine – Angels of Mercy.
So onto the review:
Is it possible to produce a seminal work on a first offering? Without a doubt this offering by Steve Grand makes a very strong case for it.
Mr. Grand hasn’t just delivered on his promise to produce an album worthy of crowd sourcing; he’s set a very high bar for those who follow. All-American Boy is not only a brilliant artistic offering, but it is also worthy of going down in the annals of gay history as truly emblematic of what we, as gay people, can bring to the table – both creatively and emotively. Steve hasn’t only amassed a brilliant and often times hypnotic work, his lyrics are purposeful and thought provoking. There is a strong emotive core through the work from the first track to the last.
Simply put: there isn’t a single weak track in the lot.
There is an infectious and emotive quality here that transcends the work – a positivity of what living honestly can bring out in a person. All-American Boy is a work that we should all be proud of, whether you were a part of his dream or not, because the prose and melodies will resonate for some time to come – he has captured what is core to us all, no matter what orientation you may be or how you self-identify. All-American Boy is at times bold (We Are The Night – FINALLY we gays have a quality anthem of our own), unapologetically audacious (Run), reflective (Back to California), to outright sexy (Soakin’ Wet).
The songs here are indicative of our hopes, our fears, our loves and our losses. They represent the many facets that make up the rich and vibrant tapestry of our community – an often times well-worn with feelings of euphoria of first/new love (STAY), crushing blows of unrequited love (All-American Boy) or somewhere in-between (Lovin’ Again) that we immediately connect with the work. Steve is a master wordsmith and a wizard with pop hooks that deep dive into who we are as gay men, or by distilling it even further, as people within the scope of humanity.
In one breath he will flash the honesty of how we live our lives as gay men but then as quickly as it comes, he moves onto an emotion or visualization that anyone can connect with. Why this is so important is that Steve is drawing a line to how being gay is merely a facet of who we are, that it is only one element that makes each of us as priceless as a Stradivarius. He deftly speaks to both, while wrapping you in a wall of sound that is instantly reminiscent of the classic sound of Philly from the sixties as it is fresh and modern of today. I think this is Steve’s strongest suit – he clearly knows what threads to pull on within ourselves, within our shared human context and emotive cores and he weaves a wondrous musical tapestry that belongs along other monumental offerings throughout the ages (Carole King’s Tapestry, immediately comes to mind). That this is his first official offering is truly awesome to hear and speaks to a journey that only shows a bright future ahead.
The collection of production talent Steve has entrusted his baby to are all to be commended on a vibrant and engaging effort. The band is spot on and never lets up emotively even if they do so musically for effect.
I, for one, cannot think of a better way to have spent my money than on Steve’s project. Truly the emotive dividends it will repay me over the years have no measure or value you can place upon them. They are immediately priceless as they are unabashedly presented – honest, true, and adeptly woven. This is music that draws upon nearly every facet of the collective American songbook. As an older cat in the gayborhood, and a writer and musician myself, I am grateful that as I see my golden years before me that we are leaving our future stories in such capable and loving hands. I am honored to have been a small part of his dream. The project has exceeded every hope I could have for it and Steve’s generosity and sheer brilliance of spirit bubbles to the surface of each song like luxurious cream in a good cup of joe – both familiar and inviting all at the same time. This is a brilliant and defining moment for Steve and crew. I hope they are truly proud of their effort, because the effort couldn’t be brighter than 10 or 10 million supernovas in the heavens above.
The only draw back? I want more.
Onto the track break down:
So why do you think I have any reason to post this sort of track-by-track review? Well, as I’ve stated above in my summation, I was a Kickstarter backer to the project. So in a manner of speaking, I was a producer. Certainly not a high-roller, mind you, but a producer of sorts, nonetheless.
Additionally, I was a DJ during the 80s and 90s and have a massive vinyl and digital music collection. I followed the music rags religiously (back then), am a classically trained (union card carrying member – under a different name) opera singer, and I am a novelist/author. Word-smithing is my game. I am also an honest, out gay man who writes about our lives in a literature format. So I think that gives me a certain degree of cred to speak to this work.
Oh, and sidebar – can I just say “YAY!” for an album that doesn’t FADE OUT at the end of each song? I LOVE that about this album! Ready-made for live performance. Bang on brilliant in my book!
But enough about me. This is about Steve’s offering – so let’s get to it shall we?
Track One: Say You’ll Love Me
Admittedly, while I am generally beyond pleased with the entire offering on this album I was a bit surprised that this was the first track (initially, that is). Not that it is a bad song. As I’ve said already there really isn’t a weak track in the work. But Say You’ll Love Me does do one thing from nearly the first note – it hooks – instantly bringing to me those long car drives that you instantly want to sing along with. The beat is infectious and begs rapping your hand on the steering wheel (not that I advocate being distracted while driving – just to be clear). But the lyrics hit you square in the face with the opening line:
“Close the door,” he says,
“This will only be a minute.”
But sometimes minutes can get
caught in suspension.
Immediately you’re caught up in the moment. He’s put you square in the central character of the song, a place many of us have been before – love of a good friend that goes unrequited (in this instance because the guy in question is straight – and so many gay men have been in this exact position (sometimes more than we want to admit)). Where the title track of this album wallows a bit in the pain of unrequited love, Say You’ll Love Me speaks clearly of the promise of the road not taken. This song is straight up novella – it is short, concise but never wavers in deep diving into those painful and complicated moments we all have had when a love isn’t returned. The licking of wounds to make things last, even if it isn’t the outcome you’d like.
Musically, this one is a roller-coaster ride of the wonderment that can be if the road were taken – if societal conditioning and norms didn’t preclude honest conversation between two caring adults. So you get the dreamlike state of being when Steve soars with the possibilities of what could be if the guy in question would say yes. But like Icarus, the dream dies during flight and we’re cast back down to the reality of it all and the soaring chords and drums are quelled so Steve can rebuild his case to offer something else. It’s all for naught, but the vibrancy and soaring dream is a lasting one long after the final chord is struck.
In the end, I realized after listening to the whole album, there really couldn’t be any other choice as the opener. The intimacy of his friend telling him to “close the door” is like a deep musical journey we’re all about to begin. So you schooled me on that one, Steve. Excellent choice – I stand corrected.
Track Two: Red, White and Blue
The pain of love on the rocks rings true here. The melodies and musical choices are reminiscent of classic Mellencamp, with a smattering of The Knack, INXS or Springfield while bubbling along with the sort of songs that were prevalent during the eighties. This is music that is timely as it is timeless. The hand-claps are a brilliant touch that connects us all to our collective musical and emotive pasts where being in bad relationships that flashed and burned ruled our hearts only to find ourselves trying to hang onto something that probably shouldn’t be but we can’t help ourselves. I mean, c’mon – haven’t we all had those bad boy relationships? Yeah, well pour another whiskey and let this one play – this is our new theme song.
Track Three: We Are The Night
Okay, sidebar here – I played this for my granddaughter who recently had a boy in her school tell her he’s gay. They’re thirteen. Now, to be honest, I’ve told her that she should get herself a GBF because they can both get through the hellish years of high school together. Told her that’s how I did it, and she could too. So when her friend at school in her class, who knew she had two gay granddads as we are quite active at her school, came out to her she was ecstatic that she had her GBF. They’ve sort of been inseparable since then. It’s a lovely thing to watch. So that’s the setting for what I am about to say with this song.
WE QUEERS FINALLY HAVE AN ANTHEM TO CALL OUR OWN! (Yeah, I am sorta screaming that to the sky).
And let’s not mince words here: this is for ALL the queer youth/community out there that need EVERY ONE OF OUR VOICES of support and love. Well, Steve has definitively laid down the gauntlet on the best way to proclaim we’re here and we have to really support one another. This is a fantastic song for reasons that go way beyond the scope of just being gay, or bi or whatever. It is for all the kids and adults who have always felt on the outside. This is a song for the rest of us. This is the song I would have cried over coming back to me from my headphones (okay, I teared up a little just remembering my hellish teen years that happened so long ago). This song would’ve been so welcome in my small insular world back then. I know it was a different era, but Steve, this song healed that young, confused 16 year old me who was trying to sort out what it all meant. You’ve gone a long way to putting those terrifying and lingering feelings to rest. I can’t thank you enough for these healing words. That you include the spoken part that addresses and includes the trans community at a time when tolerance, understanding and most of all, support and love is desperately needed for these amazing and vibrant people is truly a lovely thing to behold.
Aces in my book. Nothing short of it. This is a song for the ages.
Easily, with one exception, my absolute favorite track on the album (which I’ll come to anon in this review – just keep my granddaughter and her GBF in mind when I get there, okay?).
Track Four: All-American Boy
Now we’ve come to the track that started it all.
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There isn’t much to add here other than this one is a classic already just because it is firmly entrenched in the collective musical consciousness of those who were deeply affected by the song and the powerfully drawn and produced video that began this journey for everyone involved.
No words can adequately express the importance of this song in this album. There was no other way to bring this project to life without giving this titular song its well-deserved and proper due.
It has an infused church-like gospel quality that speaks to the soul and spirit of love, whether accepted or left unrequited. It is what we all strive for and whether successful or not, we strive to carry it forward despite the wins or losses along the way.
Track Five: Soakin’ Wet
Rick Springfield, much? Okay, but you know what? Unlike that classic rock song, this one reeks of sexiness that tosses caution to the wind and just revels in the euphoria of the moment. The way the second verse comes back to you from the raucous and driving chorus is like a memory that has been lingering too long in the dust of time only to slam you in the face with memories and feelings you thought you forgot about until (in the case of this song) “he’s” back. Yeah, this is full-on clothes off time folks. Water, wet exposed bodies and heartfelt memories that goad you to do something completely rash and in the moment that you can’t help yourself and just runaway with it all – this song captures that moment wonderfully without crossing the line to being too pop or schmaltzy. It’s infectious and brings a little summer fun in the dead of winter. A bright and bouncing beat and melody that will have you humming and singing along like you knew this song from way back and like the memories of the two characters in the song, you might even find that you think Steve had planted this in our heads a long time ago and only now just pulled it to the fore and we all go – “Oh yeah! I remember this one…” It’s eerily that familiar.
Classic and new in one package. Full-on awesome-sauce.
Track Six: Lovin’ Again
This one was a delightful surprise. It has a subtle jazz influenced verse line that exhibits Steve’s broad and adept reach into different aspects of our collective American songbook. It has all the impact of classic Billy Joel and those classic rock anthems of love gone awry and how the heart will have what the heart wants even if it is the worst thing for us. The backing vocals are a lovely if simplistic element that give it that rock anthem feel.
Track Seven: Whiskey Crime
Okay, so before I got to this rustic gem I was sensing that Steve had a theme going here. Does the guy get a kickback from every time he mentions whiskey? Seriously, bro – wtf? I mean I like Diet Coke (sorry don’t imbibe here as it is a serious issue with Native Americans) but I don’t think I would set so many songs with it. But hey, that’s just me, I suppose.
That being said, I have to say I love this track, mostly because of its rustic honky-tonk feel. It lends itself to the bar-back doubling as your psychiatrist. The only downside? I am not sure the mix with the backing vocals is where it needs to be. I think a little more forward with them would have balanced the mix a bit better. I am willing to concede that not having heard it but I think they are getting lost in the mix – especially since they are shown to brilliant effect as the opening to the song.
Track Eight: STAY
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Well, now he’s gone and done it. This one is the best example of what Steve does so well. He calls up so many elements of our rich musical past and gives us something for everyone – no matter what your musical tastes have been to this point. This is a full-on party song about the discovery of new love. I loved this song so much I mention it in one of my books (Angels of Mercy – Volume 2: Marco (shameless plug below, so sue me: it’s my blog)). The reason for including it in my own works? Well, it’s mostly because this one was released shortly after the viral video storm that was All-American Boy. Everyone was expecting country again and when it first starts with the mandolins you think – okay, yeah. But then we get horns and claps and all sorts of elements from differing walks of our musical life.
It captures how that wow factor moment of being caught up in someone new to where you don’t see much beyond them because they shine so brightly is what drives this song home emotively. Unlike Whiskey Crime the backing vocals here are spot on and are fully present in the mix. They immediately call up the exuberance of youth and of new love – where everything is just amazing and wonderful. It beckons you to stomp your feet, clap along and join in the chorus. You can’t help yourself – it’s simply that good. My summer song is set – for this year or any other.
It made such an indelible impression that I mention it in my own work. Stay will do just that – STAY.
Track Nine: Next to Me
While not a weak number, this one is a small diversion from the other tracks in that it is rather light on the lyrical element and plays to our baser desires – which isn’t a bad thing. It’s a fun song that will no doubt be a crowd-pleaser when performed live. This song begs for live performance – a crowd stirrer of the highest order. I can already see the audience jumpin’ around in a happy frenzy as Steve calls the shots from the stage.
Titillatingly Magical …
Track Ten: Time
Nothing hits closer to home for an audience than story-telling songs. They are part of the collective consciousness and are easily the most enduring. Here the lyrics take on a poetic quality – descriptive from the heart. This isn’t headspace talking here; it’s what the heart wants. It’s what the heart remembers. It’s what we want to remember most – even after a breakup. You want to hold onto those things that made it all worthwhile.
The mix of this song is really quite lovely. The balance is spot-on. I even loved the synth keyboard string arrangements (thank God the mix held it back from sounding like synths playing strings! Coming from a classical background I am all about REAL string sections but understand when budgets won’t allow for it. I just can’t stand synth strings that scream: hey, I’m playing fake strings here! It’s like nails on a chalk board for me. This mix carefully avoids that mishap).
Track Eleven: Better Off
Love lost. Yeah, we’ve all pretty much got our war stories there. This is very much like an ethereal ode to the death of love, the parting of ways, the rising above the mean and harsh words that often accompany a break up. It’s often a foolish exercise in how petty we can be in life. Nothing hurts more than love gone sour – no matter where the source of that love springs from. Steve sets this poetic ode to love-lost in the cosmos because it is a collective story that we can all relate to. It is expertly drawn and deftly executed. The mix of the song gifts you with an aural layering that the song requires to drive the expansive emotive message home.
Track Twelve: Run
I read somewhere that Steve wrote this on the porch of a friend’s house one morning with a bottle of whiskey (would it be anything else? I mean, c’mon, really?). This one is where the inexperience of youth rears its often ugly head. Where the “I don’t give a shit” rises and tries desperately to drown out the noise that surrounds them to the point of going bat-shit cray-cray. What else is there to do but Run? (Like how I worked that in? *cue rim shot* Okay, I agree. It’s smarmy – I’ll stop now).
The song is driving from the moment the first notes are struck and it never lets up. Like the flash in the pan a youngster can go through (James Dean, River Phoenix or Heath Ledger are just a few well-known instances that come to mind) where that mentality can also lead to a tragic and oft times untimely end. It is as much a cautionary tale as it is an anthem to the audacity of youth. It’s brash, it’s harsh and totally in your face unapologetic. But we were all there at one time. I look back now and think – what the fuck was I thinking? Yeah, some truly monumental moments of epic fucked-upness in my closet. This song brought all of that to the fore. Gee, thanks Steve! (<— Just Kidding)
Track Thirteen: Back to California
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Okay, remember that little side story I told you about my granddaughter and her new GBF? Yeah well this afternoon I played her the video for it. The song took on a whole new meaning for me (and by extension for her). I’d seen the video before but it didn’t distill itself with such clarity and soul cutting bite as it did this afternoon.
I put it on for her to let her see how a story played out between a teen girl and her GBF. Whether this was an auto or semi-biographical moment that Steve actually went through or not is almost beside the point (no disrespect to the author – I am all about your words, Steve – as an author I sincerely mean that in ways you just don’t know). No, what was of import here was that as she watched it, she began to draw her own conclusions of what the possibilities for her and her new GBF have in store for them both.
She’s spending the night over at his house as I write this. So while I commend Steve for putting this together (maybe even from his own past) I found I used to think about the girl in my life that was my bestie back in the day and how we did everything we could to keep each other sane throughout high school. Only now, having watched my granddaughter watch the video and its message and watching her eyes lighting up with where it could go for the both of them, I saw something truly magical take root. The torch was being passed to another generation of gay boys finding a girl they can confide in and hold close. I am truly proud of her for being there for him. He’ll need her loyalty more than he knows. Thankfully, his family is fully supportive, so no danger there.
So yeah, out of all the songs on this album this song means the most. It is the most sentimental for reasons that transcend the offering here. But that’s what makes the whole project so brilliant and all-encompassing. It is a body of work that stands individually but when combined is a powerhouse of creative spirit and musical expression.
So are there any drawbacks to the album? It can’t ALL be positive, right?
Okay, I’ll grant you. Some of the mixes weren’t what I would’ve done but those are creative choices by the team that Steve surrounds himself with. I have to respect that – and I do. Deeply. As a content creator myself I am all about respecting the craft of others.
There is a single thing I thought was missing though – a simple piano and voice piece. Back to California is a truly lovely piece, my favorite as I’ve explained earlier, but there is something so gripping about a singer and a solitary instrument that was lacking from this album. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, I just found I would’ve liked this one pit-stop somewhere to quiet things down a bit. The wall of sound can be overbearing at times – despite the masterful musical breaths the songs take within themselves. A simplistic element, letting Steve shine as solo, was something I found wanting from the work. Perhaps next time he’ll grace us with such an offering.
The studio musicians (whether they are Steve’s actual performing band or not) were all expertly chosen which only elevates the work to a prominent level, easily putting it on par with larger studio offerings and in my opinion, easily exceeding the miasma of over-processed work that is flooding the market. Steve is a brilliant and engaging personality. He is thoughtful and respectful of our collective gay history, he has a steady eye to his future but knows that there is no sense of entitlement, he is all too aware that his current rise is on the backs of those who were courageous before him. This is why I respect this man and his dream so much. Our lives and loves, the efforts we put into reaching our own equality are in very capable hands with Mr. Grand and his crew.
As an older cat, I gotta say – “Dayum brotha – you really got it goin’ on, don’tcha?”
At the time I wrote my (soon to be released – 4/1/15) first epic work, I reached out to my other musical muse, Jay Brannan who allowed me to quote from his works in my novel Angels of Mercy Volume One – Elliot (it’s about an out but terminally shy artistic gay young man in his senior year who does everything he can not to be seen, suddenly finds himself in the arms of the highest profile jock on campus). Jay was kind enough to allow me to quote a line or two of his songs in the book as my main character is emotively rooted in Jay’s darker aspects of gay life (he’s a gay fanboy for Jay).
So on balance I wanted Marco (his jock boyfriend) to have someone else to root himself in. With All-American Boy, I think I’ve found that album. Marco is a quarterback at the high school and I could totally see him digging what Steve’s message is all about. I already have him mentioning the song STAY in the work. But now he too can root himself in a musically emotive core. So thanks Steve. I know you were an inspiration for my werewolves of Sparrows Hollow (my first release) but now you’ve given me a broad canvas to emotively write about a jock who never wavers in his love of the boy who always questions if what they have is real. Is it true? Because gay boys often have to do that to stay safe. The world is changing; we are evolving (even if, at times, it appears we take just as many steps back as we do forward). But I write from the same source as Steve and Jay do: about our collective experiences, about our lives as we live them, with an eye to our future but mindfully respectful of our shared past.
Until next time …