Album Review: Joshua Radin, ‘Onwards and Sideways’

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You’ve probably heard one of Joshua Radin’s songs before, you just didn’t know it. Since his childhood friend Zach Braff, helped get his song “Winter” on Scrubs, Radin’s music has played all over movies and television. Grey’s Anatomy, One Tree Hill, Caste, even American Idol have all featured Radin’s music. His simple, unobtrusive instrumentation and breathy singing are perfectly suited to accentuate a scene. His newest album, Onwards and Sideways, may be his most background-ready yet.

The tracks (which Radin wrote as love letters to woo his current girlfriend), are all directed at a nameless “you” with the lyrics that are at once confessional and sickly sweet. Take “Angels;” With its heavy drum beat (for folk revival) and lyrics like, “You’ve got everything I need/When I’m lost it’s only you I seek,” it would play perfectly over a montage or under a romantic speech. As it stands, it’s pleasant and forgettable, but lines like, “It’s been a long time/that I’ve been on my own/and I can’t take no more,” suggest the more interesting song that could have been. Here, the chipper tune drowns out lyrics that would be far more effective paired with a slower, more smoldering melody. Radin is certainly capable of that kind of sound, or at least he used to be.

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His first album, 2006’s We Were Here, was full of it. Tracks like “Sundrenched World” or “Someone Else’s Life” are about longing, loneliness, even regret and the deceptively simple music only made the lyrics stronger, more urgent. But that sound slowly disappeared as his career progressed, replaced with a lighter, happier feel. That’s the sound that dominates Onwards and Sideways, especially on songs like the Mumford and Sons wannabe “Belong” or the cheesy “We’ll Keep Running Forever.”

Still, there are bright spots and the album improves as it goes on. The arrangements are downbeat and stripped down on tracks like “In Your Hands” and “One and Only,” so that the vocals become the real focus. Both are duets as well and contrasting Radin’s voice with a woman’s (at least what sounds like one given Radin has said this album includes the occasional male doing falsetto) makes the songs seem more dynamic and meaningful. Though that trick doesn’t always work.

“Beautiful Day,” while a decent song, suffers for two reasons. The first is Sheryl Crowe. While she’s a fine singer in her own right, she doesn’t fit with Radin. Her voice has too much character. He’s best paired with someone whose style more closely resembles his, like frequent duet partner and fellow folk artist, Priscilla Ahn, or Schuyler Fisk on “Paperweight” from the Dear John soundtrack. The second is that we’ve heard this song before. The track opened 2013’s Wax Wings and it barely stands up to multiple listens let alone a simple rerecording of the vocals. Unfortunately, this is nothing new. He also has an annoying habit of redoing songs unnecessarily, usually to the song’s detriment. He gutted “Lovely Tonight” of any feeling when he replaced the original’s catchy country twang with an avalanche of weepy piano and rerecorded the vocals to make them more whispery. Both songs and all of Onwards and Sideways speak to the major problem with Radin’s work: he repeats himself too often.

Perhaps there are only so many things a guy whisper-singing with a guitar can ultimately do and if so, Radin seems to have done them all at least twice. Now he’s just tweaking the formulas with diminishing returns. “Worlds Apart” could be a lost track from We Were Here and “Let Our Sun Shine Down” could be from Wax Wings. Who knows, maybe Radin is perfectly content to keep making the same pleasant, sweet love songs for the rest of his career. It might be unstimulating creatively, but at least he can sell them to Hollywood.

Rating: 5/10

Joshua Radin begins his tour next month and will be at Irving Plaza on March 21. Onwards and Sideways is available now.

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By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over every detail of America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture and celebrity obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to. You can find her risking her life by reading comic books while walking down the crowded streets of New York City, having inappropriate emotional reactions at her iPad screen while riding the subway or occasionally letting her love of a band convince her to stand for hours on end in one of the city’s many purgatorial concert spaces. You can follow her on Twitter to read her insightful social commentary or more likely complain about how cold it is at @MarisaCarpico.

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By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.