Island Mele: Justin ready for big time with ‘Makai’
REVIEW BY JOHN BERGER / firstname.lastname@example.org
Justin Young (Blind Man Sound/Koops2)
An overnight success is almost always many years in the making. Not to jinx it, but Justin Young’s career trajectory, from the release of his debut album, “No Better Time Than Now,” in 1996 through to this one, “Makai,” funded with a Kickstarter campaign and released last month, is a perfect example. “Makai” could easily make Young a national hit-maker overnight — in which case overnight would be 17 years!
Back in 1996 it was evident that Young was a new artist to watch and a star in the making for record label Neos Productions. Six of the 10 songs on the album were originals. Overall they were much more interesting than the album’s two pop chart remakes. A pair of classic Hawaian songs showed that his repertoire included more than Top 40 pop songs and imitation-Jamaican material.
Young worked steadily and paid his dues in the years that followed. He recorded several more albums for Neos, learned the ins and outs of studio production, and became an artist other producers called on to add commercial appeal to their projects. For instance, when KIKI released its “Brownbags 2000” compilation album, Young — known at the time simply as Justin — was a guest on three songs.
Young could have ridden the local pop/Jawaiian-lite market here indefinitely and enjoyed life as a provincial star. What he did instead was let his partnership with Neos expire, hook up with other producers and record labels, and go to the mainland where he had to start over as an unknown. The positive results of Young’s calculated gamble were seen in 2003 when he returned home with the long-awaited album, “One Foot on Sand,” and returned again in 2007 with a collection of soft-pop originals titled “All Attached.” Now, with the mainstream acoustic pop originals on “Makai,” he takes another big step forward.
Young opens the album with “Hana Hou,” a hapa-haole slice of his biography set to a Jamaican-style rhythm perfect for Hawaii’s island music radio stations; long-time fans will hear the phrase “pupule love” and recall one of his early hits. Young also appeals to the hometown audience by using bits of faux-rasta verbage amid the political commentary of a song titled “Win The War.”
With those exceptions Young is clearly aiming for a cosmopolitan national audience and the national pop charts. Take a song titled “Amnesia,” for example, with its articulate romantic lyrics, acoustic arrangement, sophisticated percussion tracks and Young’s gentle delivery. Forgetting the past has never seemed more romantic!
Young maintains the same level of commercial professionalism in the songs that follow. Whether sliding into a laid-back acoustic soul sound (“Until Tomorrow”) or crooning sweeter-than-sugar (“My Favorite”), Young reaffirms his credentials as a versatile contemporary singer/musician/songwriter.
Young’s lyric description of a troubled relationship in “Puzzle Pieces,” sung as a duet with Colbie Caillat, is poignant, vivid and imaginative. A remix of “Puzzle Pieces,” sung without Caillat, shows that he can handle somewhat upbeat material as well as softer tunes.
Comparing the songs and overall sound of “Makai” with Bruno Mars’ break-through album is not unreasonable. Young is not cloning anything Mars has done, but “Makai” could easily take him to the same heights.
John Berger has been a mainstay in the local entertainment scene for more than 40 years. Contact him via email at email@example.com.