Sunday, December 12, 2010

Little Voice & Kaleidoscope Heart

Even after several posts and several months of time, I'm still figuring out what I want this blog to be. 

One of the things I've decided is that outside of expressing my thoughts on life in general, I want to use this forum to celebrate my love of music. Music is one of my great passions. I studied voice in college, and though I rarely sing in public anymore, I consider it an integral part of who I am. I love listening to music, figuring out what works, what doesn't, and why. My taste is fairly eclectic, and I can see the value in something even if it's not my cup of tea.

To express this passion, I will periodically post on recordings that have made an impact on me. As with my last such post on Eric Hutchinson's 'Sounds Like This', such recommendations will likely not be recent releases by top-selling artists. There are hundreds of places to find such recommendations by critics far more astute than me. Instead, I will share thoughts about recordings that have touched me, impressed me, or both on a personal level over the years. Some of them may be several years old, but I feel they still hold up well. Great music truly is timeless.

Okay then. Now that I've gotten my expository explanation / justification out of the way, let's get to it!  

One of the real joys in listening to music for me is when I hit on a particular artist or recording that just knocks me over, that's so damned good I can't stop listening to it. On my rather loosely kept top ten list of favorite recordings, 'Little Voice' by Sara Bareilles is safely ensconced. This is quite impressive considering it was her  first high profile release (I believe she had a self-released recording a few years prior). 

She is best known for the single 'Love Song', a rather sardonic title in light of the opening lines of the chorus:

          I'm not gonna write you a love song
          'Cause you asked for it
          'Cause you need one, you see

The song was ostensibly written to her record company in defiance of their demand that she write a 'marketable love song', but it is nevertheless quite representative of her talent and style: Driving piano hooks and articulate, passionate lyrics delivered by a rich, bluesy, sexy voice.

There are many aspects of Ms. Bareilles and her music that I find incredibly appealing. For one thing, she's living proof that shockingly, a young female singer does not have to be a softcore porn star to be unequivocally sexy and feminine. Further, in this Lady Gaga age of consummate pretension (don't get me started; I could spend an entire post on Lady Gaga), Sara Bareilles has none. She can walk onstage in jeans and a t-shirt with nothing but her piano waiting there  and deliver an out-of-the-park listening experience.

As a vocalist, she has an excellent range with a clear, pure tone, and she delivers her lyrics with conviction and confidence. Next, her songs are not for stupid people. They are complex and intelligently written, but are nonetheless accessible and passionate. Many artists either sway into treacly, Hallmark vacuity or are so intensely insular they become inaccessible. Sara Bareilles confidently and capably utilizes the most positive aspects of both sides of that coin. Her music is catchy, sophisticated and appealing. The songs have some bite to them. They're very emotional, and there's a good distribution of those emotions. Listening to the CD, you get a sense that you're spending time with her, hearing about what she's been thinking and feeling over the course of the twelve tracks. Generally, when you listen to a CD, there are a few standout tracks, some good ones, and a couple of clunkers. There are no clunkers on 'Little Voice', which is surprising given the diversity of the songs. She effortlessly glides between catchy, infectious hooks ('Love Song', 'Bottle It Up', 'Morningside') to sultry sensuality ('Vegas', 'Come Round Soon'), to achingly beautiful ('City' and 'Gravity'), to passionate and playful ('Many the Miles', 'Fairytale').

This past September, Ms. Bareilles released her second recording, 'Kaleidoscope Heart', which I recently received as a Chanukah gift (Thank you Nancy and Jules! :) ). I find I have to live with a CD for a while before I really get a sophisticated sense of it, so I'm not going to comment at length, but it's well worth picking up as well. I found myself thinking of Ann Wilson of Heart on a few of the tracks, which is a very favorable comparison in my book. The first single, 'King of Anything', has been getting a lot of airplay, and deservedly so. It's an excellent song, and as with 'Love Song', typifies the rest of the CD: infectious hook, pointed lyrics, more ambitious arrangements and use of syncopation, and an overall greater sense of assurance. Standout tracks for me are the title track, which is brief, but contains beautiful acapella harmony, 'Uncharted', with its infectious hook and trademark introspective, sophisticated lyrics, 'Let the Rain', with its sophisticated structure, driving chorus, and honest, passionate lyrics, and 'Bluebird', with its simple, beautiful melody and exquisite, bluesy vocals.

My initial impression is that 'Kaleidoscope Heart' is not quite as consistent as 'Little Voice', but in my mind, this fact does absolutely nothing to diminish Ms. Bareilles's talent and potential. One of my favorite quotes about the music business is one I heard attributed to Elvis Costello, who said something like, "You've got your whole life to make your first record. You've got eighteen months to make your second one." Given this harsh reality, I believe artists should be given the opportunity to misstep and even fail on occasion. It is in the process of creating that artistic refinement and evolution occurs. The end result, while obviously extremely important in terms of the nuts & bolts of marketing, is not quite as essential to the artist's individual creative process as one might think.  Ms. Bareilles could have easily phoned in 'Kaleidoscope Heart', delivered nothing but more of the same from her first CD and it probably would have been successful. Instead, she rolled up her sleeves and clearly worked very hard to expand her horizons while still maintaining her core sound. She was quite successful in this endeavor, and it is my belief that ten or even twenty years from today, Sara Bareilles will still be out there conducting a successful musical career when many of her peers will have vanished from the scene.

Thanks for reading.