For all the buzz artists like Mayer Hawthorne and John Legend have created about the so-called “soul revival,” true crooners remain a rare breed. It’s a delicate sound and a risky one, but done well, it’s the red wine of music: When Frank Ocean broke into falsetto on last year’s Channel Orange, we all went a little weak in the knees.
Knee-weakening seems to be the effect Michael Blume ’13 is looking for with his recent release of a trio of videos on YouTube. Blume is a Whiffenpoof who wowed in his senior recital last semester and whose skinny-tie-and-glasses look recalls a certain other white soul singer. He boasts a Motown-ready baritone and a sensitive affect to match. Despite some forced moments, Blume navigates covers of Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin’ Bout You” and John Legend’s “Ordinary People” with impressive skill, and shows serious compositional and vocal chops on the original “I Won’t Be That Guy.”
It’s at once obvious and suicidal to tackle modern classics the way Blume does. The instant “I love this song!” reaction can easily dissipate with a performance that doesn’t do justice to the sublime original. But Blume doesn’t fall into this trap. “Ordinary People,” featuring Julian Reid ’13 on piano, poses no problem. Blume takes on the challenging vocals without flinching, although the lower register can muddy some of his numerous vocal runs. His voice fits his mellow take on the song, which is somehow even more low-key than the original. At times, though, his liberal vocal flourishes sacrifice soul for accuracy, and the song’s dynamic doesn’t vary much from its baleful starting point, making for stiff moments. Blume owns the song, but he doesn’t make it his own.
“”Thinkin Bout You” has Blume backed by guitar rather than piano and somehow much more in his element. He’s more comfortable and more genuine in an excellent, emotive rendition of Ocean’s ballad. Playing off Paul Leo’s fretwork at the song’s restrained beginning, Blume belts out the second verse before breaking into some falsetto of his own. Where “Ordinary People” was an impressive interpretation of someone else’s work, “Thinkin’ Bout You” feels like Blume’s song. Vocal showmanship is applied tastefully, and Blume’s dynamic interaction with the guitar makes the song’s peaks and valleys stand in energetic and arresting contrast. You can forgive the overly earnest looks he shoots the camera for the heartfelt performance he gives.
It’s tough to be soulful when sitting down, as Blume is for the first two videos. He compensates with doe-eyed looks and sometimes exaggerated hand gestures, but these can come off as a little overblown. But this effect evaporates once Blume can get up and move, as he does for the original “I Won’t Be That Guy.” His involvement in the song makes it a more energetic effort than the two covers. Still, Blume’s band seems to be there only as backup, not as an integral part of the song. With some exceptions, the foundation they lay for the singer solid but uninspired. Blume pulls the band together for a catchy — albeit not too inventive — chorus that showcases his jazzy voice at its best.
Blume doesn’t seem to be going for innovation, though: he and his all-acoustic accompaniment all wear suits and ties in a neatly coordinated effort for a certain stylistic niche that’s much more Calhoun Cabaret than 216 Dwight. When Blume sings, “I won’t be that guy,” it’s a reminder to himself not to fall for predictable pitfalls, to break the mold. It’s a piece of advice that he might want to contemplate, because, for all his skill, he’s walking a beaten path. True, it takes a while to develop one’s own sound, but it sometimes appears that Blume has emulation as a goal rather than a waypoint. It’s the cover of Frank Ocean that has Blume sounding most like himself; he makes the song his, rather than aiming for a sound that’s already out there. But if he keeps aiming for the likes of Frank Ocean and John Legend, I’ll listen.