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.
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.