A New Voice on the "Popera" Scene
The Phillipine Star
June 30, 2002
PLAYBACK by Jonathan Chua
Few beginners can claim to have prospects as brilliant as Josh Groban, the newest player in the increasingly lucrative "popera" market. Only 21, he has sung with Celine Dion, toured with Sarah Brightman, and recorded with Barbra Streisand. He looks pretty enough to belong to a boy band but with his baritone voice, he sounds richer, deeper, and stronger than all boy bands put together. That blend of the soft and the sonorous induces the fantasy that one can be both boy toy and father figure, and may partly account for the popularity he is enjoying.

Groban was discovered three years ago when his vocal coach sent a demo tape to producer David Foster, who was then looking for new talents. Foster was impressed, and he asked Groban to sing All I Ask of You at the inaugural of California Governor Gray Davis. A few weeks later, Foster asked him to stand in for Andrea Bocelli at the rehearsals for the Grammy Awards. He was to sing The Prayer with Celine Dion. He was afraid that he could not sing it at the right key, but Celine Dion commented that he was "incredible."

More exposure came when he played a high school student who sues his date in an episode of Ally McBeal. He sang You’re Still You, which Ennio Morricone had composed originally for the movie Malena. (The lyrics were supplied by Linda Thompson.) The aftermath was 8,000 emails, all fan mail, which convinced the show’s producer David Kelley to have Groban on another episode.

Since then, Groban has been interviewed by Larry King and Rosie O’Donnell and has been performing in many public events, including the closing ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics. He sang The Prayer with Charlotte Church before an estimated one billion viewers.

Now comes his eponymous album, a melange of the popular and the classical. It may initially puzzle the purist, as it has puzzled record sellers, who are not sure where to display the album. The overall design, however, should be quite acceptable to the less punctilious ear. Josh Groban is an album of pop material (with one classical piece thrown in) sung by a classically trained vocalist. It belongs to that emerging genre of "ersatz classical" (or "pretentious pop") being propagated by the likes of Andrea Bocelli and Charlotte Church. The classical air is simulated with the use of Italian and Spanish in some of the songs. Otherwise, everything about the album is pop. The arrangements are contemporary. Synthesizers regulate the rhythm of just about each track, even Bach’s opus (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring), the only legitimately classical piece of music in the album.

The songs are generally on the sentimental side; and it is perhaps to our advantage that many of us do not understand what we hear. We have nothing but Groban’s voice, in places enhanced electronically, to carry us away. This it does very well. The timbre is the type that incites people to romance or to thoughts of the sublime. It is a voice not dramatic enough for the opera – not yet – but it is an instrument clarion clear and capable of multiple coloration. It can be deep one moment and brilliant the next. It can render a song in strict classical measure; it can also "curl" notes for effect.

And perhaps that is where a potential problem emerges. It seems that Groban is as confused about how to place his voice as his distributors are about where to place his CD. Unlike Russell Watson, who consistently sings pop songs the pop way and classical pieces in the classical manner, Groban too often looks sideways while crossing the delicate divide between the two modes of singing. Shifting styles within a song, he becomes nightclub crooner one moment and conservatory trained chorister in the next breath.

That defect – if defect it can be called – is obviously due to youth and inexperience, which time will very likely correct. (We are told that he is still taking lessons and that he hopes to be able to interpret tenor roles.) The Janus-voice may even be what most people prefer, and they are the people who matter for a first time "investor" like Groban.

The output, as it is, is nothing to sneer at. The ballads in English alone define what euphony is for ears attuned to pop music and, I surmise, even for those more eclectically exposed: The Prayer (a duet with Charlotte Church), To Where You Are, and the aforementioned You’re Still You. Groban’s advantage is that he manages to sound natural when he sings these pop tunes even when he is using his "cultured" voice. (Probably the only other baritone who does is Thomas Hampson). Lovers of the lachrymose will find much in the album to enjoy, including Vincent (Starry, Starry Night) and Se, another song made from a Morricone movie score (Cinema Paradiso). (It appears that Morricone’s maudlin melodies offer the best material for "popera" stars to cannibalize; his core for The Mission, for example, was transformed into a song for Watson’s first album.) The sheer beauty of the voice (its freshness, its body), whichever way employed, is enough reason to enjoy the album.

Ultimately, what Groban’s first album accomplishes is two things. First, it heralds the arrival of a new voice that is bound to thrill more listeners in the future. (A million buyers in the US have already picked up the album.) Second, it reminds one how good popular music can sound once a real singer takes the microphone. If Groban does not become an operatic tenor, he can at least bring back the music in "popular music," and that would already be a return well worth the investment.