Album Review: Never Shout Never, ‘Black Cat’
Teen idols rarely go hand-in-hand with substance, but when they do the surprise can be thrilling. When Never Shout Never founder Chris Drew set out for a music career as a teenager, his self-starter drive may have belied his age, but it wasn't for nothing that his material initially found favor among screaming teenage girls. With his ambitious new album Black Cat, however, Drew may attract new fans while continuing to satisfy his existing supporter base. The album showcases his newfound penchant for experimentation without losing his focus on hooks.
For the first three songs, Drew engages in the bubblegum vocal style on which he's already built his reputation. Then, with the mid-tempo quasi-reggae anthem "Happy New Year," his coming-out party as a musician begins. From this song forward, Drew dives into his quirkier side but manages not to rock the boat. In fact, this album might have been better served if he'd named it Extra-Toed Cat -- apparently ordinary and even cute on the surface until you take a closer look. On the title track, for example, a vaudeville-influenced piano figure takes center stage while Drew uses his falsetto for maximum drama that teeters at the edge of comedy without ever diving in.
Because he combines earnestness with self-effacing charm, Drew can be so engaging a figure at the heart of his music that it's easy to miss how clever his artistry actually is. It takes exceptional personality to deliver a ukulele-vocal ballad about praying for peace, of all things, without coming across like a maudlin sap. Somehow, Drew pulls it off -- and then jumps right into "WooHoo," a rousing pop anthem worthy of INXS and Duran Duran's most breathtaking moments. (If you've ever watched the iconic video for Duran Duran's "Rio," by the way, you won't be able to listen to "WooHoo" and not see a boat racing by in your head.)
In fact, once you get past the way Drew's voice holds all of this music together, the variety jumps out at you. On "Boom!" for example, he and his band capture the signature slink of disco-period Bowie and the Stones and then abruptly dice it up with atmospheric pauses. The song is as segmented and outwardly strange as an insect's body -- and yet it moves perfectly naturally with hooks that can't be denied. Big-budget production values scream out at you from every nook and cranny of Black Cat, but its blatantly commercial ethic actually frees Drew to run wild, his sense of freedom making for a giddy listen.