Hard To Breathe, Harder To Listen

I am NOT a fan of the live album. While I enjoy actual concerts, many artists just don’t have what it takes to put on a successful live show. And there’s nothing that burns me more than spending 30-50 bucks (or more) on tickets and transportation and having to sit through a shitty show.

I caught the Maroon 5 wave right before they started to really gain any notice. A visit to BMG’s New York offices, a glimpse of the Harder To Breathe video and the next day I was in a shop to snag  Songs About Jane, which has still not made its way out of my CD’s heavy rotation.  M5’s seamless bled of rock and soul was refreshing.

Early this year, the peppy This Love caught fire, and Maroon 5 was officially the new “It” band.  Since then not only has there been a release from their previous incarnation as Beatle-esque outfit Kara’s Flowers (save your money, I didn’t), but there’s now this live album, recorded almost a full year before they became superstars. The selections are mainly acoustic — five tracks from their debut album, as well as 2 interestingly chosen covers.

Does Maroon 5 need to be unplugged?  The thought of a funk/rock band playing without live drums and electric guitar bothers me. And while some of the performances are decent, the sense of fun and joy that the album performances have is pretty much sucked out on this album.

On This Love and Sunday Morning, the piano jumps to the forefront to become the primary instrument.  However, This Love gains its primary thrust in its original version from the propulsive drums and the skittering beat. The song is merely average without them.  Adam Levine’s voice is also noteworthy.

The more fleshed-out arrangements of these songs in their album versions makes Adam’s nasal voice much easier to take. And while Adam is indeed a great vocalist, there are enough dodgy notes sung here to make you wonder if there was maybe some studio trickery involved or if the man was just having a bad night. Sunday Morning,  my favorite song on the album, suffers from Adam’s strained, forced vocal on the live version while on the album version it’s easy like…well, Sunday morning.

Harder To Breathe, the single that put Maroon 5 on the map, has NO business being performed acoustically. No electric guitars takes all the swagger out of the  attitudinal song. It’s like hearing Eye Of The Tiger performed acoustically.  The song’s punchiness is gone.  Current single She Will Be Loved gets the most faithful treatment out of all the songs here, as Adam lets loose with some wordless singing towards the end of the song that hints at what a more polished, full-bodied Maroon 5 performance might sound like.

The album closes with two wildly divergent covers. Their cover of The Beatles’  If I Fell sounds like it could’ve been ripped straight out of the Kara’s Flowers album. Adam sounds less like Super Soul Cracka and a lot more like Earnest Milquetoast Boy on this track, but then the band does a 180, plugs the guitars back in, and churns out an electric version of AC/DC’s  Highway To Hell — which is not as good as Living Colour’s version of  Back In Black but is much better than the Celine Dion & Anastacia cover of You Shook Me All Night Long.  Adam’s voice is very raspy as he tries really hard to capture some Bon Scott flavor.  The results are hilarious-intentionally. The track obviously was recorded with tongues firmly in cheek, and it actually sounds like the band is doing something they do a lot of on Songs About Jane and not enough of on this album — having fun!

This live album is nothing to write home about. It doesn’t change my opinion that Maroon 5 are a pretty damn good band. An acoustic setting just doesn’t seem like their forte, and one album is just too soon to be droppin’ the live albums on an unsuspecting public unless you’re John Mayer.  There’s nothing horrendous on here, but there’s nothing spectacular either. Do yourself a favor, put down this live EP, and pick up Songs About Jane if you haven’t yet.

–M. Heyliger