I Just Can't Get Behind Lindsay Ell's "The Continuum Project"
Ell's efforts are noble and certainly don't go unnoticed, but her interpretation of John Mayer's 2006 award-winning album Continuum falls short of the mark in my book.
To be honest, I don't think Ell was aiming to please the John Mayer completists when she released this record. After all, the project was a homework assignment issued to her by Sugarland's Kristian Bush, since the two seem to share a working relationship together.
But we're talking John Mayer here. Celebrity life aside, this is not content you mess around with. Mayer songs are so thorough, so interwoven and complete in their nature, that to cover one can be compared to walking a tightrope hundreds of feet above the ground: you slip up once, and the whole endeavor goes to sh*t.
At least, in the eyes of the JM fan base. I can't really speak for the lay audience; anyone who's seen me perform or who has been to one of my live shows knows that I cover quite a bit of early John Mayer, mostly the stuff found on his first record, Room for Squares. "Stop This Train" makes it in there every once in a while, too.
But these are live renditions. On the stage, there's much more room for acceptable improvisation than in the recording studio, and I will humbly admit that many, many, many, many hours went into perfecting those songs. But I encourage you to not take my word for it and to just prove it for yourself by coming to one of my shows found here on my website.
I'm sure the same goes for Lindsay Ell, but for whatever reason, The Continuum Project doesn't stand out to me in the way she intended it to.
The project is a song-by-song cover album, so the first song you'll hear is "Waiting on the World to Change," that 2006 time capsule that somehow reminds me of Windows XP.
I will say, the first turn-off about this recording is the opening count-in she does. "One. Two. One, two, three," is not what I was hoping to hear. It just sounds like a cheesy mimic and not very original at all. The way John does it on Continuum, he makes the ever-so-common cadence his own, not meant to be replicated.
The song launches and you hear an acoustic guitar start to strum the chords and an electric guitar playing some fills. Ell played all the instruments on the record, so we know that all guitars, as well as any accompanying instruments, are played by her.
The instrumentation on this recording isn't bad. That's not what I have a problem with. To me, the vocals on this track, and on many others, are what make me tap the skip button.
"Waiting on the World to Change" utilizes a chord progression made popular by 1960's civil rights songs that take from a foundation of soul and blues music, like "We're a Winner" and "People Get Ready" by Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions. Listen to the latter below to see what I mean.
You can hear that the chord progression is almost, if not completely, identical to "Waiting on the World to Change," going from D to Bm, to G and back to D. Mayer actually faced a lawsuit for this when the song came out, a fact now long lost to the world in pages and pages of Google search results.
With Ell's background in country music and now on the verge of becoming a pop country star, her vocals cannot do justice to the way this song was meant to be sung. There's a difference between not being able to make a song your own and not being able to justify making the song your own.
We also hear this mumbling during the bridge, "We're waiting on the world to change. It's gonna change. It's gonna change," that's just pure cringe. All in all, it's just not very accessible, especially to the fans who have heard this song millions of times. It was not meant to be countrified.
Next we have "I Don't Trust Myself (With Loving You)" and as soon as I heard the opening riff I skipped it. Listen to it for yourself to hear why. Still haven't listened to the entire thing. You need that AdrenaLinn pedal, Lindsay.
Then we have "Belief." She gets the guitar playing down pretty well. But it's the vocals again that fail to complete the illusion. Her voice does not mesh well with the way the song was originally meant to be sung. The B-section sounds pretty good and she nails the solo, and then we get to the outro and it's horrible. The obvious auto-tune and disorganized vocal harmonies she sings destroy it. This track also has some heavy vocal clipping in some spots.
"Gravity" is covered as well as can be expected with any artist. No cover will ever do the original any justice.
The guitar playing on "The Heart of Life" is compensating for inability. The left-hand movements are difficult to co-ordinate with the right hand when first learning the song, so I'll give her that. And it's not that it doesn't sound good. It's just not..."acceptable," it seems? The distorted electric guitar fills do not co-ordinate well with the clean rhythm guitar. However, I do like the heavy low-end issued by a double bass on this track.
With "Vultures," Lindsay gets the rhythm guitar and the bass just right. The fills are near perfect and the solo is good. The B-3 organ makes an appearance and that sounds pretty decent, too. It's just those vocals. The "Ooh's" in the outro are sub-par and kill the momentum she builds in the track before that.
"Stop This Train," by itself, has enough open space for countrification. Ell doesn't play the main riff the way it was played on the record, but manages to get by with the version she uses. The vocals are okay at best; but the banjo fills add something fresh to the track that I like.
"Slow Dancing in a Burning Room" is done well. This is the first track we hear on the record that Ell successfully "makes her own" and in which the vocals are sublime. The fills are great and the combination of acoustic and electric guitar is very pleasing.
It could be argued that the version of "Bold as Love" here should be judged as a John Mayer rendition rather than a Jimi Hendrix cover; but Mayer covers the song so well that the two are nearly indistinguishable outside of Mayer's own stylistic preferences. In that case, Ell's guitar playing carries heavier distortion than the Continuum version does, but the rhythmic style of playing Hendrix adopted and made popular is better performed by Mayer than by Ell. Regardless, the track is good, but doesn't stand out in the way that Slow Dancing does.
On "Dreaming with a Broken Heart," the instrumentation and arrangement are very well done, but the vocals again stifle Ell from accomplishing anything original on this recording. It sounds like she's trying too hard to nail rushed sequences of notes and make the melody unique.
"In Repair" is arranged and performed well, most especially in the bridge. I don't have as much of a problem with Ell's vocals on this track as I do with others and she nails the bridge solo. And, unlike in previous tracks, Ell gets the outro vocal harmonies just right.
"I'm Gonna Find Another You" is, in every conceivable way, a blues song played with a hollow body guitar, a horn section, and a nice, warm tone that can only be found inside of a 335. In Ell's version, we don't hear any of this, so I'll deem this track incomparable to the original. Perhaps, given the rest of this record, that's a good thing.
And with that, the record is complete.
Continuum is an example of a production made possible by the right people coming together at just the right time to combine their talents and create something the world has just never heard before. Another important thing to note is that Continuum was Mayer's third major label production; Ell has just released her first.
It's fair to say that both musicians were at very different points in their careers when producing these songs. In interviews, Ell often talks about finding her own voice and the unique sound that only Lindsay Ell can create.
As is evident by this cover album, she still has some searching to do, but that is the advantage that Mayer had when he wrote Continuum: He knew exactly how to create something that only John Mayer could create.
In total, I'll give this record a 6/10. It's a fair production whose instrumentation and arrangement shine brighter than any of the vocals.
What do you think?