As we get closer and closer to a major Britney backlash as a whole slew of teen girls get a little bit older and reject the whole kiddie pop music thing, with its trashy Barbie Dolls and eunuch-like Ken’s, those girls need not worry. There are new pop idols waiting in the wings. They’re smarter! The dress nicely! They write their own songs! And they’re slightly older! However, the fact is, as the kids reject the Britneys, Christinas, and boy singing groups, the stuff that’s being marketed toward them (by basically the same people), can still come off as saccharine and shallow as the ear candy they were previously listening to. Whether it’s hamfisted Alicia Keys and the massive marketing campaign behind her debut album, Avril Lavigne and her weird skate punk act, or Michelle Branch and her down-home acoustic pop, it’s basically all the same, only these ladies get songwriting credit.
Vanessa Carlton seems nice enough. The 21-year-old, classically trained pianist and ex-ballerina has loads of talent, looks pretty enough, sings pretty enough, and tries so darn hard to impress you on her debut album Be Not Nobody that you want to like her. Trouble is, she tries far, far too hard to impress us, to the point where we just want her to cool it a little bit, to go easy on the relentless, look-how-good-I-am piano tinkling and the overly earnest singing, and go for something a bit more moody and subtle. The music is nice enough, but she sounds like a pushy overachiever, which grows very tiresome quickly.
Need a comparison? Try to picture Jewel with a piano instead of an acoustic guitar. But to her credit, Vanessa Carlton doesn’t look like she’s going to put out a couple of volumes of poetry anytime soon, and at least she’s grown up enough to not use the word “ta-ta’s” in a song, something I can’t say about Ms. Kilcher, unfortunately. “A Thousand Miles”, a song that we’ve all grown accustomed to this past summer, is the sort of girly-voiced, introspective pop that is made to please people who are looking for singer/songwriters who look and sound profound, but actually have nothing to say. However, it’s catchy and hard to dislike, as Carlton pounds away at her piano (you show-off, you!) and sings wantonly about the guy she’s hot for.
And so the album goes, song after song of rather ordinary love songs: “Ordinary Day”, “Unsung”, “Pretty Baby”, “Sway”, “Prince”, “Wanted”, and “Twilight”, on their own may sound fine, but when you hear such flighty, slickly-produced muzak over three quarters of an hour, it gets old as soon as you get through the first three tracks. Carlton manages to get slightly more adventurous on a couple of tracks, namely “Rinse”, about a put-upon woman (“If she runs away she fears she won’t be followed”), and “Paradise”, a song about, er, well, a put-upon woman (“She slowly swallows all her fear / And soothes her mind with lies”). Any hope of substance, though, is completely killed by a slick sheen that’s lacquered over the entire sound of the album, with layers of strings that instead of enhancing tracks, make them unbearably maudlin.
Then there’s Carlton’s disastrous cover of the Rolling Stones’ classic “Paint It Black”. Instead of putting her own twist on the song, her version mimics every part of the song, right down to the inclusion of sitar. The result sounds like something one of those anonymous singers on American Idol might do, nothing more than shopping-mall karaoke. When Carlton sings, “I wanna see the sun blotted away from the sky,” it sounds uncomfortably soulless, insincere, and blandly suburban. What’s next? Avril Lavigne covering Leonard Cohen? Michelle Branch duetting with the Tindersticks? Tori Amos covering Slayer? Wait . . . scrub that last one.
Be Not Nobody isn’t very good, but it’ll please some people who are looking for harmless pop that’s a bit deeper than the usual pop music out there. For everyone else, though, they’ll be annoyed by an album that has all the depth of a petri dish. Vanessa Carlton has her heart in the right place, but her heart has to go more into her songwriting and her performance, because right now, it’s all slick production (thank you, Pro Tools) and technical ability. If she improves in the future, then good for her, but right now, we’re stuck with an album that’s, sadly, a real dud. And for any young girls who are sick of Britney and are looking for new female role models who play real, from-the-gut music, try Sleater-Kinney instead.