Chris Mann, the erstwhile The Voice finalist and current Phantom on Phantom of the Opera’s 25th annual tour, has dropped his second full album, Constellation (his first being the fabulous Roads album). This is a well-thought-out album where the songs simultaneously mesh nicely but vary stylistically enough to never bore. We have the initial “North Star” which brings out the constellation theme, but also provides the focus point from which to gauge the album. This song lets us know that the album will be characterized by noble themes of steadfast love, holding fast through storms, hope, and remaining true. It’s not sappy or sentimental but it is graceful and positive (while fully recognizing pain). It also speaks to a well-produced album which provides a nearly perfect balance of rich sound without being overly produced, we have intimate sound yet a full sound stage. A deft and precise hand guided this album from the cover (seriously cool), to sound engineering and the content included. If there’s any fault, it’s that the liner information doesn’t contain lyrics. Here we have mostly newly penned songs by Mr. Mann and brilliant co-writers such as Justin Tranter, Amy Foster, Felix Snow, Liz Rose and Mark Hammond among others, let’s emphasize that fact. Just sayin’. All of that is so much detritus, however, were it not for the main event – Chris Mann’s voice. Mr. Mann is in firm control of this instrument, hitting each song with perfect pitch, a considerable range, and crystal clarity. There are no misses on this album; it is a thorough delight.
[Full disclosure: I received an advanced copy of the album for use in an honest review.]
As noted above, “North Star” sets the tone for the album. While Mr. Mann has a more authentic stylistic range than other “pop opera” singers, this song is certainly within his stylistic wheelhouse. It is the North Star of the album, setting the course of clear, pitch-perfect and impassioned songs. We have all felt “hope sinking like a stone…” There is no doubt that waves and storms will come; sometimes we doubt and stop believing in others. While ultimately God is the only fully firm guide, He enables us to be “North Stars” for one another. Here Mr. Mann sings an ode to that willingness to standing firm in the midst of the storm.
In “Rain Like This,” Chris Mann flexes his stylistic muscles with what at first appears to be a pop ballad that slowly melds into full-on pop. As I listen to the song I could easily imagine Lady Antebellum being featured on it. It’s fun to see similar themes of love in the midst of a “rain like this” changed up stylistically. The next three songs, “Echo”, “Away” and “Slow” are, like “North Star,” in Mr. Mann’s sweet spot. They have that more robust, richer timber signature of a pop ballad. Each is well developed. For example, the underlying beat in “Echo” echoes while off-setting the melody. I particularly like the intimate relationship the image of voice and echo portrays. In “Away,” the underlying beat plays a different role of a heartbeat trying to find strength in separation. I also love the way the song builds from subtle nuanced singing lightly touching the notes to the big sound of crying out ”how am I supposed to find a way without you” and finally tapering off. I’m assuming Mrs. Mann (as well as others) swoons as she listens to “Slow” which is nearly the perfect love song: “ I don’t ever want to rush what matters most.” Now listen carefully to “Slow” for its perfect phrasing: the timing, lift, and release all perfectly mesh to portray its message that whatever it takes, we will go slow because this love is important enough.
These songs provide a great picture of the album. I hope I convey a sense of its message it sounds and it’s spot on execution while leaving it to you to explore. So now I’m going to wander a little more quickly through some highlights of the rest. I must confess I have a special place in my heart for “To the Moon and Back.” Not only does it have this delightful folk song sound with its guitar background and phrasing, but it harkens back to the days of reading Guess How Much of I Love Yo to my children. You take a children’s theme of love and a turn that into romantical love is just a brilliant move. “Come Back” starts out as if it’s a 70s anthem from Queen and morphs into a country crossover song. Once again Lady Antebellum comes to mind (no idea why they’re on my mind). It’s a great song that definitely stands out on the album. While “Love and War” continue the theme of the back & forth, ups & downs of love, it stood out as a showcase of just how high Mr. Mann’s voice can go. There was a point in the song I thought he had a woman join him; it’s him along. He doesn’t have a falsetto sound; there remains power beneath the high notes. Really impressive.
You may, like me, have been pulled up short by the long, drawn out pacing of “Fly Me To The Moon.” Many of us have Frank Sinatra’s (or, more contemporarily, Diana Krall’s) version of the song embedded in our head. Mr. Mann interprets this song as a slow, lyrical ballad. This change from a relatively quick paced jazz song is not without precedent; singers like Tony Bennet and Rod Stewart have taken a similar approach. (We’ve even a bluesy R&B version from Bobby Womack and a bassa novaesque one from Astrud Gilberto). Having listened to this a number of times now, this version growes on me. Rather than snapping my fingers as it moves along, this version has me picturing myself in a smoky jazz club sitting back next to my beloved with a single malt scotch being gently swirled in my hand as I allow the music smoothly waft over the top of me. Not a bad interpretation.
We have a couple treats in the bonus songs on this album. One is from the show for which he’s currently on tour, Phantom of the Opera. It’s certainly his own version of “The Music of the Night,” emphasizing his impassioned control. The other bonus song is an intriguing remix of ”Echo.”
So it’s got to happen. There is no holding back. How can you review someone like this without some comparisons and in particular comparing Chris Mann to Josh Groban. Both are great. I personally believe Mr. Groban has a bit more power and a slightly larger range on the bottom, but I believe Chris Mann has more flexibility among different styles of music. He’s believable sounding with straight pop and crossover country as well as “pop opera.” While he is clearly his own artist, one way to think about this would be like merging 70% Josh Groban and 30% Michael Bublé. However you want to characterize him, his voice is pure, powerful and, dare I say, lovely. I have seen few albums better put together. I highly commend, without any reservation, Constellation to your listening pleasure.