The music business is mired in sameness (and payola, but that's for a different post.) so why am I listening to some music that can easily be described in terms of its comparables? Simple - similarity is not necessarily a bad thing. The fact that an A&R can run back and say "this band sounds just like ________" simply makes it more likely to be a positive in signing, assuming that you fill in the blanks with a commercially viable act.
Blue Merle can fill in the blank easily. Even a quick listen will immediately draw Coldplay comparisons. Luke Reynolds sounds amazingly like Chris Martin and the band's sound recalls what Coldplay would sound like if Martin and the boys had grown up in Nashville. Replace Coldplay's piano with dreamy string arrangements and a mandolin seemingly lifted from Nickel Creek and you can almost hear Blue Merle. Now that the stew's ingredients are laid out, the band's first album "Burning In The Sun" comes out as something more than the sum of its parts. Songs like "Lucky To Know You" and the title track are nearly as soaring as anything on X&Y while others have a country/bluegrass edge that is as longing as recent Allison Krauss. After seeing Coldplay sing with Richard Ashcroft at Live 8, a song named "Bittersweet Memory" seems calculated, but in a perfect world, that song would be on the charts.
James Blunt is getting a lot of play in the UK now and there are immediate comparisons to Damien Rice. Rice's sublime "O" may be one of my favorite albums of all time so that's high praise. Blunt isn't as cinematic or sweeping as anything in Rice's catalog. He relies more on his high tenor, twisted lyrics, and more of a pop sound to convey what he's trying to get across. Blunt's album is good on its own, yet it's also the type of album that makes me really excited about the next one. A little bit more maturity and polish makes Blunt one to watch.
Fall Out Boy sounds like every other emo band in the world. On the first listen, that is. A couple more plays and you'll hear the little extras they hide behind the snarky song titles and conventions of the genre. Their lyrics are just a little bit smarter, their music just a little bit tighter, and each song has a little bit extra that pushes the band as a whole from good to great. They stand with Alkaline Trio and My Chemical Romance as bands that will likely break out of the bounds of emo, but Fall Out Boy - already getting MTV action somehow - are the ones that are likely to make the best music.
Of course, sameness isn't everything. Try explaining the sound of Oingo Boingo to someone and you'll find yourself at a standstill. XM had a great interview with Danny Elfman on their "Cinemagic" station (one of my favorites) discussing his film scores, bringing me back to his early work. Given hindsight, one can certainly hear echoes of his "Batman" and "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" scores in Oingo Boingo's work. If someone saw "Sommersby" coming, let me know. It ranks with the best of modern film scores.