Sara Bareilles’ “Kaleidoscope Heart” (2010) – The Weekend Review

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  4 / 5 stars

Isn’t Sara Bareilles the girl from that Rhapsody commercial?

Yes, Bareilles is the singer you were most likely introduced to through that commercial, playing her “Love Song” on a piano in someone’s living room.  He comes in and changes the track, and she switches to “Bottle It Up.”  Although it was overplayed, it was a clever commercial, and it seems to have taken Bareilles’ career up a notch.

Her follow-up effort, Kaleidoscope Heart, finds her further developing her piano/power pop sound, writing several more characteristically tight tracks, stretching out for some ballads, and even experimenting a bit.

If she hopes to hold her audience’s attention, or especially if she’d like to expand it, then it would be advisable for her to take some more risks.  The a cappella title track and the unfiltered “Basket Case” are promising starting points, though most of the songs on her record conform to the pre-established formula.

That’s not to say that it isn’t a good formula…

Bareilles has tremendous ability on the piano, and she takes to time to tinker with a harmonica this time around (always a positive, in this writer’s book!).  She has that deep, yet richly feminine voice that would have served her well in a jazz career and has made her instantly recognizable.

There are, of course, echoes of Vanessa Carlton here, but Carlton’s second album Harmonium found her burying her vocals in overly produced efforts.  By beginning with an a cappella track, Bareilles clearly has other priorities.

Some would say better priorities.  And I would agree.

Still, early reviews have criticized her (as I have, above) for not pushing the envelope, for being content to stick to that aforementioned formula.  While this is a valid criticism, and while I obviously agree to a point, I would also ask such critics to consider not only the formula, but also what she is able to do with it.

Sara Bareilles' "Kaleidoscope Heart" (2010)

Sara Bareilles' "Kaleidoscope Heart" (2010)

While I hesitate to say it is superior to her breakout single “Love Song,” “King of Anything” is an excellent track, and certainly a single-worthy effort.  The big attitude, the piano bursts, and the hand clapping all contribute to this catchy and fun song.

“Uncharted” is even better, and the perfect choice for the first full-length track.  This is arguably a better candidate for the first single, being the perfect amalgamation of vocals, piano, with strings and electric guitar layered to good effect.

These are only two of the many strong piano rock tracks throughout Kaleidoscope Heart.  There is also “Gonna Get Over You,” with its fifties rock sensibilities sped up to meet modern day standards, the uber-poppy “Say You’re Sorry,” and “Not Alone,” a plea for a lover to stay that adopts a slightly darker edge that comes complete with Alfred Hitchcock’s voice in the middle.

This is not to say that Bareilles gets stuck in one gear.  Elsewhere — most notably on “The Light” and Breathe Again” — she pulls away from her typical pop sound to embrace slower, more introspective tracks. “Hold My Heart” is indisputably the flagship piano ballad here, anchored by a chorus that will resonate in your head long after the track has faded out.

Perhaps the most interesting, if not the most entertaining, song comes midway through the album.  “Basket Case” is an unabashed confession that finds Bareilles on acoustic guitar and harmonica, adopting a traditional arrangement that is distinctive, diverging from the established sound of the album at just the right point to avoid an aura of complacency.

It is aptly followed by “Let it Rain,” another acoustic track and one that rocks out.  Whether intentionally or not, she is channeling my favorite female singer/songwriter; I’m referring to Michelle Branch, an artist I’ve been smitten with since I heard her first single on the radio.  I have since followed her career closely, from the better-than-solid debut The Spirit Room (2001) to the outstanding follow up Hotel Paper (2003).  Branch has since declined, not having released a solo album until her third, dragged along for over two years, was released this year as a six-song country EP.  Her partnership with Jessica Harp as The Wreckers was great and all, but Harp contributed the superior tracks to that effort.

I diverge into the realm of Branch’s catalog as a means of complimenting Bareilles.  Although Kaleidoscope Heart is no Hotel Paper, “Let The Rain” is a Branch-esque song done better than Branch can manage herself these days.  I predict nothing but increasing excellence from Bareilles if she is able to keep her independence by writing her own songs (not even Branch did that on either of her albums) and playing her own instruments, even if it is an acoustic track that takes her away from her trademark piano.

For now, Kaleidoscope Heart is an above average sophomore effort, and expresses the vast potential that I can only hope she will have the fortitude to make good on.  Since it’s become painfully clear that Michelle Branch will not be this generation’s premier female rock singer/songwriter, I’m hearing more and more reasons to cast my lot with Sara Bareilles.

The Weekend Review: May 2012 Report

By Chris Moore:

Strangeland (Keane)

Producer: Dan Grech-Marguerat

Released: May 4, 2012

Rating: 3 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “You Are Young” & “Sovereign Light Café”

For better or for worse, it has been confirmed time and again since their debut that Keane is a good song.  Strangeland continues the trend, and though there are certainly a handful of standouts, the first three tracks set the tone and pace for what is left to come.  There are other piano-based bands that have released more innovative material – Jukebox the Ghost, for instance – and why Keane has taken the leap to such tremendous fame and success (five consecutive number one albums, among other achievements) is still a mystery to me.




Rize of the Fenix (Tenacious D)

Producer: John Kimbrough & John King

Released: May 11, 2012

Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “39” & “Classical Teacher”

What was the first sign Tenacious D are back with a new album and ready to rock?  The penis, testicles, and wings of fire on the cover were pretty much a dead giveaway…  It would be easy to dismiss half-rock/half-comedy duo Jack Black and Kyle Gass as merely aimed toward shock value and vulgarity, but even a superficial reading of their work reveals serious musical talent and an expansive vocabulary of stylistic and cultural references.  Rize of the Fenix doesn’t quite rise to the level of mastery set on their 2001 self-titled debut, but it would be difficult to imagine any album recapturing the raw hilarity of that record.  Instead, Rize presents high-adrenaline rock and roll from start to finish, with some interesting tangents and very funny sketches filling in the transitions.  It all culminates in the funny, beautiful “39,” a song that conjures Bob Seger at the peak of his popularity with, of course, some vulgar descriptions added to the standard fare for good measure.



Ten Stories (mewithoutYou)

Producer: Daniel Smith

Released: May 15, 2012

Rating:  4 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Grist for the Malady Mill” & “Cardiff Giant”

With Ten Stories, mewithoutYou offer a taste of what albums once offered with more regularity: a concept album that involves music, lyrics, and artwork in the grander scheme of its vision.  In this case, the “ten stories” are ten tracks that unfurl the tale of a train crash involving a traveling circus in 19th-century Montana, a story cycle inspired by a book that lead singer/songwriter Aaron Weiss read before the making of Ten Stories.  What is brilliant about mewithoutYou’s latest release is not any one piece in particular, but the manner in which all the components come together: the uncommonly interesting, strong lyrics voiced loudly and with a sense of urgent abandon as appropriate to the subject matter, coupled with carefully orchestrated music that moves smoothly between soft and serious and loud and nearly unhinged.  All in all, the listening experience ends up being like what I imagine it would sound like if Neil Young set out to make a hardcore record.




Born and Raised (John Mayer)

Producer: John Mayer & Don Was

Released: May 22, 2012

Rating: 3.5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Something Like Olivia” & “Queen of California”

After stepping back into familiar soundscapes for 2009’s Battle Studies, Mayer has switched it up again, this time donning a cowboy hat and experimenting within the country genre.  As could be expected from a popular songwriter working within this genre, Mayer’s work drifts in and out of the predictable yet does not confine itself to the current standards of the genre.  The result is a steady helping of pleasant, even pretty songs that amount to an easy listen.  You won’t find anything groundbreaking here, but you will find a steady stream of songs that clearly belong together.  Mayer experiments with a reprise of the title track, something he hasn’t implemented previously.  There are standouts, such as the upbeat, catchy “Something Like Olivia” and the solid album starter “Queen of California.”  Throughout, the quality is fairly steady, strengthened by stronger tracks (“Shadow Days,” “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967”) sprinkled amongst the more lackluster fare.  At times, there is a feel which can only be traced to an early-seventies Dylan sound, a comparison made all the more tempting by Mayer’s nod to the Bard in one line (“if you see her, say hello”).  Overall, this won’t be considered a great effort at the close of Mayer’s career, but it is a solid installment in his catalog.




Once Upon Another Time [EP] (Sara Bareilles)

Producer: Ben Folds

Released: May 22, 2012

Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Sweet As Whole” & “Lie To Me”

Once Upon Another Time works well as an EP, though I could scarcely imagine an entire album at the pace and tone offered by this effort, though I imagine that is the point of, and perhaps the best reason for, recording an EP in the first place.  As could be expected from any effort with both Sara Bareilles’ and Ben Folds’ respectively impressive creative stamps upon in, Once Upon Another Time offers a strong and creative sequence of tracks.  It starts off as low-key as can be with the largely a cappella title track and slowly building to the drum-backed frustration of “Lie To Me” before backing off to the simpler yet catchier piano-driven tones of “Sweet As Whole” and the final, expansive song “Bright Lights and Cityscape.”  “Sweet As Whole” is the clear standout and stands as perhaps the clearest marker that this is indeed a Bareilles/Folds collaboration: it is pretty and heartfelt yet emotionally wrought and catchy and largely rendered in the base, vulgar language of informal speakers of English.  It seems at first to clash with the sound of the music or even the EP as a whole, but, after a few listens, one should be hard-pressed not to sing along with this perfectly placed climax of the EP.




Magic Hour (Scissor Sisters)

Producer: Scissor Sisters, Calvin Harris, Stuart Price, Alex Ridha, & Pharrell Williams

Released: May 25, 2012

Rating:  4.5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Year of Living Dangerously” & “San Luis Obispo”

Just when it seemed that the Scissor Sisters outdid themselves with the outstandingly fun Night Work (2010), they return a mere two years later with an album like Magic Hour, an album that artfully experiments with juxtaposition: of modern and classic sounds, of expansive gems and singles waiting to happen, and of seriously rendered lyrics and what can only be described as a mixture of funny and vulgar.  The list of standout tracks would be longer than the list of songs that fall short, what with tremendous work like the lush, gorgeous “San Luis Obispo,” the foot-stomping, fist-bumping “Baby Come Home,” and the richly textured “Inevitable.”  “Let’s Have a Kiki” is no throwaway and, in fact, begs a sing-along.  And, of course, there is what seems to be the heart of the album, the thesis that drives the work around it: “Year of Living Dangerously.”  All in all, the Scissor Sisters have outdone themselves again and continue to make some of the best, most innovative and engaging music of their generation.