Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Not So Little Voice

There is something nearly eerie in the way Journey lead guitarist Neal Schon found Arnel Pineda and in the way Arnel Pineda's voice forms the same precise symbiosis with Journey's music that Steve Perry's did back in the 1980s.

Journey has gone through two lead singers since Perry finally went hors de combat in 1997, following a hip injury sustained during a hike in Hawaii. Steve Augeri stepped in as a replacement and was himself replaced by Jeff Scott Soto. What proceeded Soto's departure was nearly the plot of the 2001 movie Rock Star, in which a front man is replaced by the lead singer from a tribute band. This is what almost happened, until the band found Arnel Pineda on YouTube, singing Journey's biggest hits in a manner mirroring the uncanny abilities of Jane Horrocks in 1998's Little Voice.

Thanks to the Internet, fantasy may now confront reality and knock the daylights out of it, which is pretty much what went down with Mr. Schon when he heard Mr. Pineda breeze through such Journey classics as ''Faithfully,'' ''Don't Stop Believing,'' and ''Open Arms.'' Not only, Mr. Pineda and his band The Zoo also covered Aerosmith, Styx, Toto, Survivor, Deep Purple, Queen, Nirvana, and that notoriously difficult American Idol Waterloo, Heart's ''Alone,'' a song that is nearly impossible to sing in its original key of D-flat major.

Mr. Schon's use of YouTube to vet possible lead singers was undertaken, as he tells it, to find ''someone new to the business.'' Mr. Pineda, as it turns out, was new only to the massive business of arena rock; he had fronted his present and past bands throughout Southeast Asia and Hong Kong since 1982. Along the way, he and his bands signed deals with BMG and MCA Universal, and Mr. Pineda inked another deal with Warner Brothers, this time for a solo album.

What Mr. Schon found on YouTube was a passable lounge band with a tonally mimetic tenor who cruised through rock's classics as if he were merely loping around that block of Big Eighties hits that included Journey's prime chestnuts. Mr. Pineda was the echt deal, a singer of enormous talent who was completely unknown outside of the Pinoy community. Following a two-day audition in Marin County, Mr. Pineda was offered the job.

Some care has been taken not to overstress the spooky resemblance between the voices of Mr. Perry and Mr. Pineda, because Journey will not become a tribute to itself or dwell at the altar of its former front man, whose voice propelled the band to its greatest heights. Mr. Pineda is also deserving of recognition on his own merits even as his straight black hair itself recalls that of Mr. Perry.

The YouTube videos show a singer of tremendous vocal strength and emotional range who was low on performance chops. This situation has since been rectified, as proved by additional videos showing Journey performing live at a concert in Chile. Then again, Mr. Perry himself was never a showman on the level of Mick Jagger or of Prince and in general let his voice do most of the heavy lifting.

Revelation, Journey's new album, was released yesterday. It is a three-CD set including a retrospective of 11 re-recorded songs, 11 new singles, and a bonus DVD of the band in performance. In keeping with ''the times they are a-changin''' that is the music industry today, they have followed the lead of Genesis' When in Rome and of Clay Aiken's holiday mini-album and are selling Revelation exclusively at Wal-Mart.

The fundamental Journey narrative--from the Edward Hopper-like ''Don't Stop Believing'' through and beyond the love-call affirmations of ''Open Arms'' and ''Faithfully'' --broadens to include new affirmations of sobriety and Mellencamp-style American perseverance. Love and longing, always Journey's most important theme and the popular subject of the band's classic power ballads, are not given short shrift in the face of a more expansive emotional awareness.

Musically, Journey sounds as it always did, which means that Journey never trips and stumbles over artistic experimentation and misdirected creative ''growth.'' Any of the new songs on Revelation might have beens taken wholesale from Escape or Frontiers. The band refers to itself as a ''franchise,'' and by this they mean that which has carried Journey on its back since the late 1970s, the formula that must not be changed. Mr. Pineda slots in easily with this franchise; watching him perform in Chile dispels any notion that he is simply a Perry in parvo. Mr. Pineda is also more than capable of bringing a performance close to an oratorio. This is the reason people buy tickets to see Journey in concert and bought tickets to see Journey with Mr. Perry at the helm.

Anyone familiar with what is sometimes unkindly called ''Dinosaur Rock'' will understand the problem a band like Journey faces as it simultaneously attempts to launch both a new record and a new singer. In Journey's case, enough time has elapsed since Mr. Perry's departure that Mr. Pineda--vocal likenesses excepted--should find immediate acceptance on the strength of his talent alone. The larger problem is one that confronts the bands of summer as they tour either singly or, as Journey is doing, as part of a larger ticket. Their goal is to sell records; the fans want to hear the hits. In the summer of 2004, I witnessed Pat Benatar chide a small, beer-guzzling audience at the Sonoma County Fair for failing to appreciate her latest release. ''Come on, guys,'' she pleaded, ''give me a break.'' It didn't work. They had come to hear ''Love Is a Battlefield'' and they had no interest whatsoever in whatever it was Ms. Benatar was presently shilling. Journey, on the other hand, seems poised to sidestep much of this drama by sticking so closely to the musical formula--driven in large part by Neal Schon's insistent guitar and Jonathan Cain's keyboards--that made it the smash, occasionally schmaltzy hit in the first instance.

Re-recording hits as big as Journey's with a new singer seems a risky, presumptuous affair until you sit down and listen to them. Mr. Pineda has precisely the same emotional and soulful pitch as Mr. Perry, and the same fluidity in gliding up the scales. As was true with Mr. Perry, Mr. Pineda has one of the great voices of rock. That it was--from a narrow American perspective--functionally hidden under a rock gives it a Hollywood spin that will likely be accepted without further scrutiny. We built this city not on rock and roll but on our refusal to deny a man's right to dream.

Rock history is full of replaced singers and changed line-ups that have either been incredibly successful (Brian Johnson for Bon Scott of AC/DC; Sammy Hagar for David Lee Roth in Van Halen) or incredibly beleaguered (Gary Cherone for David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar in Van Halen). In between, there is Paul Rodgers for Freddie Mercury in Queen and Tim ''Ripper'' Owens for Rob Halford in Judas Priest (a move that inspired the Rock Star movie and which fans initially found rebarbative).

Because Revelation takes no stab at portraying growth by getting creative with the Journey recipe, what is revealed--besides the glorious discovery of Mr. Pineda--is that the album may well be the alkahest that finally dissolves the band's status as merely Big Eighties nostrum rock. Nostalgia is only overrated when it feels cheap, and the new Journey feels big-business slick. Never the type of band that traded heavily on cultural comment, they continue along in mainstream bliss, exhibiting the same type of musical skill combined with power vocal that made them a success in the first place. Unlike what befalls writers, once Journey learned to craft hits they didn't appear to become bored by repeating the process. A lesson is learned: Revelation gives ample demonstration of why convention and moderation are the keys to a long life, just like the doctor always told you. I defy you to listen and think otherwise.

Journey (along with Heart and Cheap Trick) tours America from July 9th.


WendyB said...

Ah, Journey. My first rock concert ever.

K.Line said...

I don't know much about Journey's music, but I did hear this story recently (about finding Arnel Pineda) and I think it's fascinating. (And that Pat Benatar vignette you related is so disheartening. Reinvention is a bitch, man...)

enc said...

It sounds like they made all the moves that would keep them from going off the rails. I haven't heard their stuff for years, but now I want to. Thanks for taking the time to write this post.

Suzanna Mars said...

enc, I (as you know) favored punk. However, my university studies in classical musical theory and orchestration have given me a new appreciation for the brilliance of form in Journey's music.

TheSundayBest said...


It's so good to have you back.

Suzanna Mars said...

Thanks, TW, but I'm on 24-standby to move. I'll be off line for a month once my truck leaves California. They think it will take two weeks for the truck to arrive, and then I've got a ten-day lead on setting up communications in the new place.

I'll be back sometime in mid-July.

Anonymous said...

Great writing...a must read for Journey fans.