It has been one hell of a journey for Mount Prospect, IL native Lee DeWyze and in just a span of two, three years he has gone from a frontman of a band whose claim to fame was providing background music for a locally produced Chicago Bears-themed show by the Chicago ABC affiliate to winning American Idol Season 9 in a feel-good story of the struggling indie singer-songwriter rising to fame unknown. In between DeWyze put out two solid indie efforts and laid down tracks for a local organic baby food company.
So the question is given the demands of one's first year as winner of American Idol, what would a Lee DeWyze major label debut be all about? Gone is the brooding and contemplative nature of "Slumberland" and is replaced with one simple phrase that is the title of his major label debut, "Live It Up". So the real question is, does Lee DeWyze "Live It Up" on his first foot forward into the waters of the major label music world?
The breezy and generally sunny album begins with a strong foot forward with the title track, which in this reviewer's opinion still should have been the first single brought to radio. The whimsy in "Live It Up" is much better executed than in the radio-friendly and overdone "Sweet Serendipity", which is only saved partially by DeWyze's raspy vocals and songwriting. "Live It Up" has a Jason Mraz meets O.A.R. feel to it and should clearly be the second song sent to radio after the more comparatively catchy "Sweet Serendipity" runs its course.
After the filler song "It's Gotta Be Love", a relatively unspectacular standard-issue acoustic song about love, Lee shows off his acoustic chops in a big way with the auto-biographical "Dear Isabelle". The base melody may remind listeners of fellow Chicagoans Plain White T's and their first chart-topper "Hey There Delilah" but "Dear Isabelle" exposes a side of him that even "Slumberland" never ever showed. It is very contemplative, very plucky in nature and as a bonus, he is really singing about some girl in the northwest suburbs of Chicago (where Musiqtone.com is based at if you're looking for a physical location!).
"Beautiful Like You" is much like "Sweet Serendipity", an underwhelming song with standard-issue lyrics and too much instrumentation and production around it. Again, Lee's rasp in the belting hook is the saving grace in an otherwise average number at best. "Stay Here" is a half decent breezy standard issue pop/rocker number complete with the cliche syncopated beats and the hand clap that is becoming more and more present in songs like these. And much like the previous "Beautiful Like You", "Stay Here" is mostly overdone and covers up Lee's shining vocals, again a saving grace in this track.
"Me and My Jealousy" is another sparkling gem on "Live It Up". The arena rock-feel and the edgy roar from DeWyze's vocals sparkle from start to finish on this track. This is one of the rare songs on the album in which he didn't have a lead co-write that worked very well. The gems continue with the piano-driven "Brooklyn Bridge", which might be the best and most surprising track on the album. DeWyze has built his career on folksy alt-pop/rock but he shows off his flexibility with this cool, laid-back jazzy-pop/rock number (think Michael Buble for those who need a major name comparison) and his vocals drive a surprisingly heartfelt and passionate refrain hook.
The album ends on a classic Lee DeWyze note, the short but sweet acoustic number "A Song About Love" and the difference between this one and "It's Gotta Be Love" is simply the production and execution. This song will definitely remind his long-time fans (especially his pre-Idol fans) of the execution and nature of his previous two efforts. The song delivers a strong message while staying true to DeWyze's understated charm.
The answer to the question to begin the review is that at times, Lee DeWyze does in fact "Live It Up", as long as he's the primary writer in a co-written song and calls some of the shots in production and instrumentation, which is very rare in the post-Idol winner world. Most of the tracks in which he did not have lead co-write or didn't even write them at all are generally underwhelming, average at best and in some cases overdone. Like David Cook in his debut album, only DeWyze's sandy vocals save these numbers. Gems like "Dear Isabelle", "Brooklyn Bridge" and "Me and My Jealousy" should give insight to where Lee may ultimately end up and is at his best in but this debut is generally a hit and miss effort. There is understandability in how fast this debut was written, produced and recorded in the time available by RCA, but we are betting that given more time, this would be a truly bona-fide major label debut album. Only his sophomore offering (at press time, he is getting lukewarm promotion, low radio airplay) will decide where Lee DeWyze will belong: the major label world he is signed to for the duration of his contract or an exit back into the indie music world he worked for years before American Idol. And as Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee can attest to, that is really not necessarily a bad thing at all.