“Kailee Anne” may well be the most perfect pop song issued this year. From the ‘60s girl group opening to the soaring chorus to the Beatlesque guiitar solo and bridge, it fully encapsulates decades of pop in just shy of three minutes. And that’s just the first track on Michael Carpenter’s stunning second album, Hopefulness
Carpenter is a producer by trade, holding down the boards at his own Stagefright Studios. That expertise colors this album, every nook and cranny filled with just the right production touch, from sleigh bells to backing vocals to organ. This is a great headphones album, the close-listening rewarded by Carpenter’s little studio touches.
The album was written and recorded in a four-month burst around the time of Carpenter’s wedding. Carpenter fueled his songs with the energy brought on by that life-changing event, as well as by the universally positive reviews of his debut disc, Baby. The result is a collection of love songs that are lovingly crafted by someone who obviously feels as strongly about pop music as he does about love. It’s to Carpenter’s credit that he’s been able to jam this full of sweet sentiments without the whole thing collapsing as a sickly, sugary mess. The cynicism that creeps into even the most heart-felt contemporary songs is completely absent here. These are pure expressions of emotion, and they give these songs an extra burst of energy.
The opener is a brisk burst of sunny pop that sets a tone that Carpenter carries forward through most of the rest of the disc. In fact, the first three songs are utterly fantastic. “Kailie Anne” is followed by the title song, a bopping little track that begins as a George Harrison-like acoustic number before erupting into a fully orchestrated work that bounces along on Mike Love-esque “ba ba ba” backing vocals. Next up is “Believes Again”, perhaps the best thing here, a song that transcends its influences with a driving beat and a soaring hook. It even sports a nifty little a cappella break.
Transcending influences, in fact, isn’t a problem for Carpenter. It’s clear he has spent a lot of time listening to and studying the Beach Boys and the Beatles (his recreation of “Rain” posted as an MP3 on his web site a few months ago, was ample proof of his talents), and he’s put what he’s learned into practice. But while you can point to a particular vocal or guitar line and say “that sounds like Brian Wilson” or “that reminds me of George Harrison”, these bits are part of a whole that sounds like Carpenter. He has absorbed his influences and used them to make something his own.
That personal flavor doesn’t end with the songwriting. As he did on Baby, Carpenter played almost every note here himself, allowing him to keep tight reins on the recording. He’s helped out in spots: guests perform pedal steel, keyboard and background harmony on some tracks. But Carpenter puts his talents to good use everywhere else, and yet this never takes on that stilted, muted feel that plagues many one-man-band efforts.
Carpenter closes the album with two covers, one a credited take on the Beach Boys’ “You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone”, the other a hidden track of Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World”. Both, again, are spot-on. Carpenter plays junior Brian Wilson on the former, hand-crafting a loving tribute to the Beach Boys. He’s soulful on the latter, channeling the emotion of the album’s other songs through the straight up old school R&B of Cooke’s song. It shows yet another influence, one that is not as easily heard in Carpenter’s own work.