With its hard-driving beats, funky rhythms and stellar pop-centric sensibility, vocalist, pianist and composer Peter Cincotti's fourth album, Metropolis, might be perceived as a sharp left turn from the jazz-focused, boy-crooner sound that established his career a decade ago. But Cincotti sees Metropolis, for which he wrote all 12 songs, as more evolutionary than revolutionary, marking his continuance along a musical path that he started mapping as early as age three.
Cincotti was just 18 when, in 2003, his eponymous debut album for Concord catapulted him to international fame. Endless comparisons were made to the singing and playing style of Harry Connick Jr. (one of Cincotti's early mentors and strongest boosters) and Cincotti was often hailed as the post-millennial answer to Frank Sinatra. Looking back a decade, Peter recalls, "I was surrounded by a lot of people who want you to repeat things-to make the same record over and over again. [Back then] I did have a lot of idols in the Sinatra mold, and still do, but that was always just one room in the house for me. I never wanted to live just in that one room. I might come back to it, but I also wanted to discover the rest of the house-to keep adding and exploring new rooms, rather than sitting on the couch. Even with the first album, my goal was to find a personal approach to the [jazz] genre. Music for me is about creating something, not repeating something."
Actually, Cincotti sees his musical journey not as a straight line, but as a connected series of circles, somewhat comparable to the bases on a baseball field. That first album and his like-minded 2004 Concord follow-up, On the Moon, were doubles that together brought him full circle to home base. Then, with 2007's East of Angel Town (released by Warner Brothers Records in Europe and Asia; then two years later in the U.S.), Cincotti's first album of exclusively original material, which moved away from jazz and into the pop arena, it was the beginning of a second circle (kind of a line drive that got him to first base). That album went gold overseas and yielded Cincotti's last hit single "Goodbye Philadelphia", which reached number #1 on pop radio charts throughout Europe and kept him touring there for the last several years. Now, with Metropolis, he's rounding that same circle toward second. Though, judging from the quality of his craftsmanship as both composer and musician, Metropolis seems destined to be a home run.
For Cincotti, the first step in the two-year arc of Metropolis' creation was finding the right producer. His earlier albums were shaped by industry heavyweights-the first two by Phil Ramone, the third by David Foster. This time around, Cincotti chose the younger but equally dynamic John Fields. "I met with a whole bunch of people," says Cincotti, "but as soon as I met John, we clicked. He's produced such a wide variety of music - everything from The Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus, to Switchfoot and other rock bands, and once I got to know him, I discovered there was this whole other side of him that was heavy into the blues-funk Minneapolis sound, which is where he's from. All those different elements were key to this record, and it was exciting to collaborate with someone who speaks many different musical languages."
That Fields is also a richly accomplished multi-instrumentalist (on Metropolis he appears on all 12 tracks, alternating among guitar, bass and keyboards) was critical to the album's development. "John is like a one-stop music shop," Cincotti enthuses, "which is really cool, because it meant that everything could be done simultaneously. It was never like ‘next Wednesday we're going to be adding guitars,' so you'd have to wait around for a week until guitar day. Every element of every song was considered early and at once. Even mixing decisions were made immediately. John and I would build each track and then there was a select group of musicians who would enhance the concept." Some contributors, like violinist, keyboardist and string arranger Stephen Lu and drummer/percussionist Dorian Crozier, appear on the majority of tracks. Others-including guitarist Peter Thorn, Prince's drummer Michael Bland and guitarist David Ryan Harris-make less frequent appearances, handpicked to add their distinct magic to specific tracks. Percussionist and effects wizard Ken Chastain is, for example, a close friend of Fields' and, as Cincotti explains, "We were working on the title track and John said, ‘I think Ken would totally get this; let's see what he can bring to it.' It was a very gratifying way to make a record."
Though "Metropolis" was the last track completed, it drives the album's theme, which examines the joys and ills of the contemporary urban experience from multiple perspectives. "The album is," says Cincotti, "meant to be representative of how we live today. It's not one particular city, but the urban landscape in general. I wanted each song to feel like a neighborhood within Metropolis, and for the storylines within the songs to somehow seem as if they were occurring simultaneously."
The album opens with its set piece, the title track, strongly reminiscent of the Pet Shop Boys' infectiously propulsive electronica. Later tracks "Graffiti Wall," partially inspired by the twentieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall's demolition, and "World Gone Crazy," with its condemnation of society's tech-fueled ferocity, further speak to the overarching theme.
The remaining tracks focus more on personal tales within this urban jungle. "There are," says, Cincotti, "a few songs on the album about commitment, beginning with "My Religion." It's polar opposite is "Forever and Always." Both are about becoming someone else for the sake of a relationship, but the first comes from the dark side of commitment and the second from the light."
Romantic upheaval is also prevalent. "Take a Good Look" traces a disintegrating relationship. As Cincotti explains, "The beginning of the song is a question, the middle a feeling, and the end an undeniable belief that the relationship is over." The closing track, "Before I Go," is also about departures but, he says, "has a sort of cockeyed optimism in it. It's about trying to freeze that moment in time before you have to say goodbye, honestly believing you can fight the inevitable."
But, proof that Cincotti has not entirely lost heart, there are also several songs that suggest a more upbeat attitude towards love and its possibilities. "Do or Die" tells of a guy infatuated with a workmate who is finally given his chance when he finds himself alone with her in an elevator. "It is," says Cincotti, "all about making the first move - that ‘fight or flight' response that sometimes goes through your head when you're interested in someone." Irresistible attraction is also central to "Magnetic." "In this case," says Cincotti with a laugh, "the guy's excuse is that it's pure physics: ‘don't blame me,' he's saying, ‘I have no control over this.'" And "Fit You Better" is a clever tale of, as the lyric suggests, ‘perfect opposites' whose marked differences are what make the romance work.
Though all 12 tracks demonstrate Cincotti's escalating skill and maturity as a songwriter, two are particular standouts. "Madeline" again concerns commitment, but with an intriguing twist. The guy in the piece is unswerving in his long-term dedication to one woman, yet realizes that a former lover will always cloud his memory. "I was interested," says Cincotti, "in the idea of someone from the past forever tainting the present. What it may be like to move forward while accepting the fact that the rest of your life will be haunted by someone you will never have again." And, dovetailing the through themes of modern urban life and romantic entanglements is "Nothing's Enough." Cincotti sees the song as "a big question mark. It concerns [societal] excess; how people my age have become accustomed to quick changes and immediate gratification on every level. The question is: How does that mindset affect modern day relationships?"
Ultimately, Cincotti would like listeners, who nowadays often approach music in terms of individual track downloads rather than complete albums, to "listen to the album as an album. I'm hoping people will press ‘pause' on the craziness of their daily lives and actually experience the entire record. It's a lot to ask in this day and age, but this album is all about creating another world-the [quasi-mythical] world of Metropolis-and I want them to feel like they've actually been there.
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