A year and a half ago I wrote, on the subject of Jon McLaughlin’s debut album Indiana, that the album was a confident entry from a songwriter who knew his craft. But that album didn’t do much in the world of radio, and though McLaughlin did get some buzz in early ’08 for getting the chance to sing “So Close” from the film Enchanted at this year’s Oscars, he remains for the most part unknown. He apparently figured the way to get listeners for his sophomore album would be to succumb to producing music that appeals to the widest audience, whatever the cost. Therefore we get OK Now, which, as kindly as it can be put, shows the Disneyfication of an otherwise solid songwriter who seems to have lost every bit of his confidence.
OK Now is drenched in the overproduced floodlights of soulless ’80s-era megapop. Think the poppier side of Richard Marx and you’ll have an idea of what McLaughlin’s sound aims for. Except the album also tries to aim itself at tweens, the types who found High School Musical to be riveting, and to whom the Jonas Brothers are pop bliss.
So we get songs like “4 Years” (“the king of the nerds and the queen of the prom go on to get jobs … now he’s a CEO and she answers his phone!”) and “You Can Never Go Back” (“you can never go back to Xanadu, running with the Young and the Restless, nothin’ better to do”) which cater to the lowest common denominator of pop drivel. It’s embarrassing to see how far the overall quality has to drop in order to get a radio hit these days, but more-so because Jon McLaughlin is a heartland artist who has talent deserving of much more than what Island’s allowing here.
Worse, the album suffers from a serious case of disorganization and drag. It’s heavy on cheesy diary-entry balladry, and when the songs do get more upbeat, McLaughlin’s piano-pop leanings are used and abused to create what are seen as “poppy” potential hits. “You Can Never Go Back” sounds like what a modern producer might think an ’80s hit would have sounded like, though it takes the Richard Marx-meets-Billy Joel backdrop and creates something which, quite frankly, doesn’t sound like what a pop hit sounds like then or now. Unless you count Radio Disney, that is. And the references to Avalon, Xanadu and The Young and The Restless don’t seem like what would resonate with your average teenie listener anyway. So who’s the album suppose to resonate with?
Elsewhere, “Dance The Night Away” wants desperately to be an “All She Wants To Do Is Dance” for the ’08 pop set, but it lacks any substance, drowning any essence of McL’s latent creativity in studio excess. “No more sorrow, we might not be here tomorrow,” he sings, “so let’s live for the moment and dance the night away.” More like we might not be here tomorrow, so why throw our time away on this drivel?
That’s not to say there are no hints of what Jon McLaughlin could be without the misdirected production values on this album. “Why I’m Talking To You” has a hint of sassy jazz edge to what’s an otherwise average pop track, though it hints that Jon might be hinting at music he’d be more comfortable performing. Something, perhaps, of a Gavin DeGraw or Harry Connick hybrid. “Throw My Love Around,” meanwhile, may be the album’s most heartfelt, honest ballad, the closest he gets to recreating the level of songcraft he’d harnessed so well on his debut. It’s also a pretty nice sounding hit-in-the-making, though I suspect his label might be too tone-deaf to hear the potential. Meanwhile, the album’s closer, “We All Need Saving,” is a bare-bones example of McLaughlin in top form. With just his piano, vocals and background harmonies, the song hints at so much we won’t find more of here. That these three songs come at the end of what is otherwise a sub-par release full of overproduced clichés and knockoffs is disheartening.
In the end, OK Now is a clear example of how poor sales of an otherwise stellar debut could lead a major label to encourage a stylistic shift which wasn’t needed. The album shows little of what makes Jon McLaughlin such an interesting songwriter, and it’s sad to think that the first introduction much of America will get to his music is this mediocre mess. Here’s hoping for something less underwhelming from him in a third album, while we quietly wait for this one to fade into the background. Because if this turns into his High School Musical, we may never hear him reach his artistic potential, even if he does wind up with a hit on his hands.
Highlight Track: “We All Need Saving”