I confess my expectations of Sam Tsui’s freshman album “Make It Up” were pretty high. We already know Sam can sing and we’ve heard some pretty inventive work from his musical partner, producer and mathematician Kurt Schneider in the past. So, while the album serves up some pleasing tunes, it sort of underscores the problem of being a one-man band. Off hand, I can’t think of anyone who’s a triple threat—Broadway-quality singer, virtuoso musician and multi-hit songwriter. There’s probably a one hit wonder or two out there, but no one I can name who’s had a sustained career in music. Sam and Kurt have made the classic first-timer’s mistake of not including a few tracks penned by an established songwriter that would have a much better chance of turning into a Top 40 hit on the radio—a writer like Max Martin, king of dance pop hits for *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and others comes to mind.
Prior to this album, most of Sam and Kurt’s work has been covers of popular songs—some of them pretty edgy, particularly Kurt’s solo vocal of Ed Sheeran’s “The A Team,” a folk ballad that includes lyrics about a crack-addicted prostitute. Similarly, Sam has covered Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” So, while I wasn’t expecting a hard-hitting social statement, the lyrics here are safe enough to be played on Radio Disney.
Most of the songs are peppy dance numbers in search of a high-stepping Broadway musical. The most commercial, in my humble opinion, is “Open Up the Sky,” a song reminiscent of the Eurhythmics’ 1984 hit “Here Comes the Rain Again.” That’s the only track that made it to my iPod’s “A-list” and, as much as I like it, it falls a little short of what I would have wished for—a little longer repeat of the chorus, with increasingly intense harmonies and maybe a half step key change. That’s why I titled this review “Almost Excellent.”
Kurt’s instrumental performances and arrangements offer an occasional surprise, most notably on “Bring Me the Night,” which features a melodic piano lead and cello accompaniment. Mostly, though, the musical effect is sort of a matte finish. A major record label would have polished these songs into glossy tracks, with some real strings and an A-list session drummer. With $60,000 in Kickstarter funding, it’s a mystery why the duo didn’t do this themselves. Many pop singers would never have had a record played on the radio if their handlers hadn’t backed them with A-list session musicians like the Wrecking Crew. Arguably, some of those records were only hits because of the memorable work of studio musicians like Hal Blaine on drums on the DeFranco Family’s “Heartbeat, It’s A Love Beat” and Chuck Berghofer’s unforgettable base line on Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin.’”
The hazard in producing dance music lies is its repetitiveness. It makes for easy dancing but it can be deadly dull for repeated listening. Still, Madonna’s producers have shown us you can give the audience a surprise with a dance tune—like the Vivaldian-style violin opening on “Pappa Don’t Preach.”
“Worth It” is the album’s only ballad and an attempt at a “power ballad.” But power ballads have a fairly well established formula: You start out with a simple instrumental background (as this song does), then gradually build with more instruments, more harmony and a key change for the last chorus—where you also pull out all of the stops with an interesting new counterpoint melody line. Here, we just climb the first two steps of this ladder…and fall off.
Apparently Tsui penned all of these tunes himself, except “Don’t Want An Ending,” which was co-written by Schneider. The album liner notes don’t say. It’s a bit of a mystery why Tsui and Schneider didn’t take this opportunity to introduce the song “Paper Planes” that Schneider co-wrote with the legendary Jeff Barry (“Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Then He Kissed Me,” and “Be My Baby”), and the prolific Steve Lindsey.
“Make It Up” might liven up your next party and its strong enough that it might turn into a major record deal for Tsui, but look for proven writers and studio musicians to provide the backing for that effort.
I love Sam's voice, but I thought a lot of the music was over produced and the lyrics cliché. I did enjoy the stripped version of Don't Want an Ending, but nothing else struck me. Keep up the hard work though.