Plunky and catchy, Bareilles' sophomore release is sugary sap.
Sara Bareilles began her mainstream career auspiciously enough when Epic Records insisted she write and record a radio-friendly pop love song. The result was the utterly annoying “Love Song”, with it’s ‘you-go-girl’ attitude that only upper-middle-class white soccer moms with bad dye jobs and clingy clothes would sincerely enjoy. Ironically, the remainder of Bareilles’ major-label debut Little Voice is much more enjoyable then the trite “Love Song” that the mainstream radio-listening public was subjected to. Songs like “Vegas” and “One Sweet Love” revealed a pop sensibility that only slightly elevated Bareilles’ uniqueness level beyond the typical MOR standard that “Love Song” established. Kaleidoscope Heart is Bareilles’ sophomore release, but given the ‘meh’ attitude towards her debut, there really is no pressure here, except maybe to duplicate the success of “Love Song”. And duplicate she does not. It is evident that there is nothing here that emulates the degree of badness that was “Love Song”—this however does not imply that what we do hear on the record is any good.
If Little Voice was Bareilles’ exercise in expunging some deeply embedded teenage-angst that inevitably disappointed her record company (only to be proven wrong by the success of “Love Song”, which they ultimately commissioned from her), Kaleidoscope Heart is Bareilles’ exercise in self-assured autonomy over an artist-driven piece of work. The result is a cross between KT Tunstall and Vanessa Carlton, unbelievably forgettable. I have now listened to the record more than six times and still cannot recall more than a single melody line or lyric of insight from Bareilles’ confessional story-telling style. The reason for the latter is simply because there are no lyrics of insight. Bareilles’ story-telling is reminiscent of a 16 year old girl’s diary entries, lacking any of the insight of experience with all of the self-indulgent arrogance.
The Fiona Apple comparisons I have been noticing are laughable when you consider how adept Apple is at manipulating the English language (not to mention her superior songwriting capabilities) versus Bareilles’ lines like: “I hate to break it to you babe/But I’m not drowning/There’s no one here to save/Who cares if you disagree/You are not me/Who made you king of anything/So you dare tell me who to be / who died and made you king of anything?”, from “King of Anything”. It’s ridiculous.
Bareilles barrels through Kaleidoscope with all the gusto of a rock-chick with something to prove. However, what seems like 12 songs into listening to it, you realize that you’re only on track eight, with five more to go. Subsequently, it becomes clear that your teeth can’t take any more of this sugary sap that forces itself through you like molasses—much too thick and sweet to ever be digestible. And this is ultimately the problem with Bareilles’ approach to pop music. It wants to sound light and fluffy like angel food cake, but weighs you down like the thickest of syrups, only edible if you are wanting to indulge in a guilty pleasure. In fact, this ‘guilty pleasure’-ness of the singer’s music is perhaps the only way you could really groove to her uninspired beat.
The misconception that most music goers will only listen to what they believe is artistically relevant is a fallacy. Sure, there are our favorite bands and artists (Bareilles is, I’m sure, for many), but we all indulge in the ‘guilty pleasure’ that is pop music—even the staff at PitchFork. Hell, I’m sure we all at one point or another owned a Lisa Loeb record. I know, because a decade ago, there was a massive influx of used Lisa Loeb CD’s at every used record shop. And so will be the fate of Sara Bareilles. But for now, we can take some occasional joy as we sing along to the worst lyrics this side of pop/rock, sung to super-sweet catchy hooks.
However, even when you are indulging in Bareilles’ offering of pop music, it isn’t her that you are indulging in, but rather the pop. These songs could be coming from anyone, at any moment, but for the time being, they’re coming from Bareilles, and she’ll do, even if you don’t care what the names of her songs are, nor attempt to make the kind of connection to them that she is hoping you will. Ultimately, each song recalls a kind of recognition, as if to suggest you’ve heard this song before, but can’t recall where or when—and it’s name is right on the tip of your tongue. It’s occasionally fun, and a good way to practice your Glee-voice in the shower.
At this point, I would like to make a full stop to where I’m headed with this review. It is now abundantly clear that Bareilles is not impressing anyone here but herself, and that your enjoyment of her requires a proper mood, a passenger-less car ride, and a self-awareness of utter indulgence. However, having emphatically stated this, I feel it’s necessary to call attention to the few brilliant moments that flutter in and out of this beautifully (and deeply) produced record. First, is the truly magnificent pop production that is similar in vein to Barielles’ major-label debut.
Each clunk of the piano can be felt in the lowest registers of your chest. Most piano production relies on the sweet upper-timbres, playing more like a twinkling star than the proper percussive instrument that it is. Thankfully, Bareilles saves us from overuse of the treble clef (something I wish Tori Amos would emulate), and focuses her plunks near the bass notes. The result is physiologically moving. You feel the music in a way that is glossed over in most pop albums. The same approach to music production is carried throughout the record, balancing every musical instrument that appears. There are a number of sounds layered and imbrication over one another, but each layer is clear and discernible. It truly is a very great sounding record.
The second brilliant moment comes during the 5/4 time signature of the chorus in the magnificently catchy “Let the Rain”. To read the lyrics: “I wanna let the rain come down/make a brand new ground/Let the rain come down”, you would never suspect that the pop effect could work any better than the mediocrity that precedes it. But it does. The refrain of “Let the Rain” (and quite possibly the only part of the song) is Bareilles’ only inspired moment of pop brilliance on Kaleidoscope. It’s catchy, earnest, and sincere. It succeeds where every other song fails. This is not to say that there aren’t any other nice moments on the record. It’s just that no other track stands out the way “Let the Rain” does. You are forced to take notice at this point, even if you’ve been continuously listening throughout. It’s only trouble is it’s far too fleeting.
Although Kaliedoscope Heart was probably intended to prove Bareilles’ staying power, it only confirms suspicions that in some years, she’ll be as remembered as Michelle Branch, or Tracy Bonham, still making music, but without any of the mass appeal they once enjoyed. If Bareilles could only embrace the underlying ‘nu-country’ vibe that is bubbling beneath her surface, she would probably enjoy the longevity of a sustainable music career. Unfortunately, for her and for us, she thinks she’s cooler than that.