There’s nothing unique about a young woman strumming an acoustic guitar and singing about crushes, relationships gone bad and striking out on your own. But for Colbie Caillat, the singer behind the 2007 smash debut single “Bubbly”, it’s all about the delivery, not the source material.
When Caillat sang, “I’ve been awake for a while now / You’ve got me feelin like a child now”, the first two lines of “Bubbly”, she served notice that she was a singer with depth, simply in the contrasting ways she intoned the word “now”. It’s a small, subtle thing, but it’s key to Caillat’s talent as a singer. She relies on syncopation, enunciation and dynamics more than the octave-busting melisma of the ‘90s divas that came before her.
On Breakthrough, the follow up to Coco (the “Bubbly” album), Caillat wisely builds upon her strengths—the aforementioned disciplined singing approach and girly topics—rather than enter drastic new territory. There’s a consistency throughout the 12 tracks, which is remarkable considering she enlisted some proven hit-makers—co-writer John Shanks (Kelly Clarkson, Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow), her producer dad Ken Caillat (who co-produced and co-engineered Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours), and writing partner Kara DioGuardio of American Idol. The industry pros serve to sweeten, not change, Caillat’s sound, which results in a richly textured album, not just a collection of radio-baiting singles, that retains the performer’s personality.
Caillat opens with “I Won’t”, a crisp, breathy tune that emphasizes her nuanced style. She introduces some vocal syncopation on the chorus of “Begin Again” as well as some vulnerability: “So, before you say you’re gonna go / I should probably let you know / That I never knew what I had”.
A quirky organ rhythm, akin to Feist’s “1, 2, 3, 4”, introduces “You Got Me”, which stands in contrast to the teenage-diary lyrics. Musically, the song is a standout, with a string-laden lush pop chorus that adds horns the second time around. “Rainbow” is lightweight pop fare with some nice gospel tinges near the end thanks to some understated backing vocals. Singer Jason Reeves, who co-wrote “Bubbly”, returns to duet on “Droplets”. He comes off as a guy who would wear a knit hat and an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder to the beach, but it would probably work there and it works here, too.
Caillat deploys an electronic beat on the two and the four in “Fearless”, which is a nice change of pace without deviating too far from the Breakthrough blueprint. When she hits some higher notes on the chorus, it reminds of Mariah Carey’s more restrained material, they key word being restrained. Caillat is not simply stretching her vocal instrument for show here. “Runnin’ Around” is built on an airy “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” vibe, which leads to frustration, at least for more adventurous listeners, when it devolves into typical contemporary pop for the chorus. But one man’s Pablum is another man’s gold; Caillat and label Universal Republic didn’t enlist proven hit-makers to gain indie-rock cred or construct a prog-rock opus.
The most fair, relevant way to judge Caillat and Breakthrough is to compare them to their peers, and that’s a battle she wins easily. While Clarkson churns out rocking yet juvenile girl-power anthems and Nelly Furtado blasts club beats, Caillat is a singer and collaborator comfortable in her own skin. There’s no attention-grabbing guests, no salacious videos, really no gimmickry at all.
Another useful comparison might be Taylor Swift, who has transcended pop country and connected with young post-Britney girls with tales of princes and unicorns. Caillat has a similar, but more earthy and mature, appeal. And when she sings songs on Breakthrough like “Fallin’ for You”, the girls will get it and the boys will wish she was singing about them.
// Notes from the Road
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