Review Summary: Streamlined and polished, Daughtry is pure guitar pop. Rock fans are going to riot.
American Idol has, for the entirety of its existence, been a laughing stock among serious music fans. The contestants are attention whores without the talent to survive without the built in audience that the show provides for the eventual high finishers. Even this is not enough in all cases, as several of the winners have been flash in the pan artists, burning out and fading away before their careers had a chance to begin. But, lost among the crowd of faceless singers aping their favorite artists, actual musicians sneak through and are given the platform they need to break through into the mainstream. The winner of the first season, Kelly Clarkson, did this, as did eventual winner Carrie Underwood. What is less common is for a non-winner to find success, but it has happened. Fourth place finisher Chris Daughtry was the show's resident rocker, the token nod to fans of heavier music that American Idol was not solely concerned with tear-jerking ballads. Daughtry was not the winner, but losing turned out to be the best break of his life. Free from the pressure of pleasing the producers behind the scenes, he was able to assemble a band and make the record he wanted, which established him as being one of the preeminent voices in modern rock.
Daughtry's debut album was the best selling record of the year, moving more than four million copies while producing a string of hits on the charts. Along with Nickelback, Daughtry was the lone voice keeping rock alive in the mainstream of top 40 radio. The band, now a solidified unit with years of touring experience behind them, is back with their second album, another effort sure to top the charts.
One thing needs to be made clear about Daughtry: this is not pure rock music. Daughtry is often labeled as a "post-grunge" band, a moniker thrown around by critics who know nothing of actual rock. Daughtry is an unabashed guitar pop band, carrying on the bright rock produced by bands like Tonic in the 90's, not the dark slog that came out of Seattle. Leave This Town takes the band further in this direction, removing the sharp edges of harder material from their songs, embracing their role as popular hitmakers. There are no guest appearances from rock legends like Slash this time to prove the band's credibility, this album is all about the songs.
The songs on Leave This Town are exactly what is expected of Daughtry, tightly written pop songs with flashes of rock giving them the appearance of muscularity. "You Don't Belong" opens the album with a downtuned riff straight off of modern rock radio, giving the appearance of a stylistic shift before falling into the trademark Daughtry sound. It sounds like it was left on the cutting room floor of their first album, a perfect way to mark this new chapter.
The band does nothing extravagant here. The songs are all constricted compositions, leaving no room for excess wandering or open energy. These are songs all about Daughtry's voice and melodies, which he does his best to bring to life. The band is capable, shading the music with slight variations to draw each song unique. "No Surprise" plays with an echoed effect on the vocals, while "What I Meant To Say" and "Open Up Your Eyes" use prominent synths to bring in a retro feel. "Tennessee Line" touches on country, with a single violin playing in the background, while "Call Your Name" closes the album with a swirling rush of climbing power chords.
Daughtry brings a few guests along for the ride, co-writing with Chad Kroeger of Nickelback, and Ben Moody, the former guitarist of Evanescence. Kroeger contributes "Life After You", an addictive half ballad that feels like a Matchbox Twenty song, and is destined to sit atop the charts. Moody contributes "Open Up Your Eyes", a darker, atmospheric song with a more subtle hook.
These songs, despite their pedigree, are indistinguishable from the songs penned by the band. Their work is professional, sharp, a perfect balance of rock and pop sensibilities. They give ample room for Daughtry to explore the limits of his voice, which is the true surprise here.
During his time on American Idol, and on the debut record, Daughtry was a vocal powerhouse, a singer with the kind of clear power that few singers possess. Somewhere in between records, the strains of touring and stardom have seemed to creep in, his voice bearing the burden. His voice creaks in softer sections, sounding like an outtake done by a sick singer. His reaches for high notes are similarly strange, a thin nasal timbre replacing his rich tone. The degradation of his voice is startling on the extremes, but non-existent when he sticks to his comfortable range, which is the majority of the record.
Leave This Town is an album that avoids the sophomore slump. This is a record that does everything well, and doesn't overstay its welcome. The downside is that some of the songs are indistinguishable, and the album comes across as sounding like a retread of the debut. That is only a minor criticism, as good music is good music, regardless of the originality. Daughtry has hit upon a winning formula, and only an idiot would throw that away. Leave This Town may be more pop than rock, but don't let that scare you. This, and not the sludge on modern rock radio, is where bands should be.