Lee DeWyze’s Early Albums: A Boy And His Guitar Grow Up

Pre-'American Idol' work displays singer/songwriter's progress, in Bigger Than the Sound.

Late last week, I received a package from something called Wuli Records, a vaguely mysterious-sounding Chicago label with a fancy dragon logo. Intrigued — since, you know, I love dragons — I opened it, and out fell a pair of CDs from a singer/songwriter named Lee DeWyze. I have never heard of him, but I decided to give them a listen, since he looked like a nice guy in the press photo. I guess I had a few hours to kill or something.

Of course, the second-half of that paragraph isn’t exactly true (since, you know, DeWyze is probably going to win “American Idol,” a show watched by some 20 million people every week, myself included), but I decided to pretend like it was, for one day at least. Erasing everything I know about him from my memory (which isn’t all that much — didn’t he work in a paint store or something?), I sat down and listened to DeWyze’s first two albums. After all, before he was a front-runner on America’s favorite singing competition, he was just another kid with an acoustic guitar, a batch of songs and a dream of making it big. I suppose it was my way of trying to get to know him better or at least trying to latch on to this fairly nebulous thing his fans keep e-mailing me about. What can I say? I guess I had a few hours to kill or something.

So, ignore everything I just wrote. Let’s talk about this DeWyze kid — he could be big someday, or at least have a song or two on adult-contemporary radio, provided he works hard enough.

His first album — which, conveniently enough, came bundled with a huge sticker declaring it “The Debut Album From Lee DeWyze” — is called So I’m Told, and it’s very much a first album. Released in 2007 and produced by Ryan T. McGuire (who, Wikipedia tells me, is/was a member of the Virginia Gentlemen, “the oldest a cappella group at the University of Virginia”), it’s basically 11 gently strummed acoustic numbers, with DeWyze singing like a mushier-mouthed Dave Matthews (particularly on the song “Love and Misery”). None of it is particularly grabbing, though it bears mention that the silly wah-wah guitar frippery on “Red Rover” manages to get a rise (it also sounds a whole lot like Edie Brickell & New Bohemians’ “What I Am”), and DeWyze’s duet with an unnamed female singer (looking at the back of the album for a name, perhaps it’s “Erin McGuire,” who’s credited as an “Additional Recording Engineer”) on “The Problem Is You” is genuinely pretty. The problem here is, DeWyze doesn’t show anything special. Sure, his voice is nice enough, and he’s a perfectly serviceable player, but he doesn’t do much to distance himself from the 10 bazillion dudes who do this same kind of thing every Tuesday at open-mic night. Oh, and the album artwork is kind of boring too.

It’s on DeWyze’s second album — or, as the sticker on the front puts it, “The New Album” — Slumberland where he really shows signs of distancing himself from the pack. Released in 2009, it’s proof that DeWyze has been practicing and growing as a musician and songwriter. Opening with “So What Now” — a hushed, dreamlike number featuring a humming, backtracked guitar bit, rattling tabla and a sitar (!) — the album rolls right into the strummy, feedback-laced “All Fall Down” and then a roiling slide-guitar tune called “Annabelle,” each showcasing his newfound sorta-growl and swampy, sweaty phrasing techniques. There’s a cocksure swagger here, and yes, DeWyze still sounds a lot like Matthews, but he’s also coming into his own. I could see him winning a televised singing competition someday.

Thematically, as the title implies, Slumberland seems to be loosely based on the concept of sleep, or at least dreams. “Princess” opens with the line “Do you remember sleeping on the floor?” “Where You Lie” begins with “Under your bed, where you lie your head.” And, shoot, there’s a tune called “Another Sleep Song” on here too. Sonically, there’s plenty of opaque, treated guitars, wooshing, windswept slide guitar, winsome strings and even some electronic beats. I’ll go ahead and call it a concept album, because, hey, it’s not like anyone is ever gonna hear it.

The point is, I would probably actually buy Slumberland, or at least download it off some torrent site. There’s an admirable level of growth on display here, in just about every conceivable way — not to mention the level of ambition he shows by releasing what amounts to a conceptual piece. Even the artwork — a drawing of a tree — is much improved this time out.

I don’t know what the future holds for DeWyze, but if the leap he made from one album to the next is any indication, things look bright indeed. Sure, he’s still just a singer/songwriter (a genus I will freely admit to loathing), but there’s something here, to be certain. Now, if only he could find some way to raise his profile. Then the sky would really be the limit.

Questions? Comments? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.