Courtney Jaye looks like a singer-songwriter, sings like a singer-songwriter, and has the chops to probably make it as a singer-songwriter. Fortunately, she has a slight difference that tends to separate her from the rest of the female, coffeehouse, folk-performing clientele. On her new album, Jaye uses modern pop sensibilities that make it perfect for adult contemporary music circles—soft and safe, but not safe to the point of a giant yawn-inducing ditty. At least, for the first few songs that is . Think of the smarts of Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs and you are greeted with the warm and somewhat tender “Lose My Head”. Here Jaye sounds like the answer to Aussie alt.country darling Kasey Chambers, although it falls somewhere between pop and alt.country. It would be suited for a mixed tape of newcomers like Jason Mraz and Daniel Powter. And having Josh Freese on drums and Paulinho Da Costa on percussion certainly isn’t a problem either.
Jaye shows a fun side on the summery, Sheryl Crow-ish “Can’t Behave” as she sings about having eyes in the back of her head. Smart pop melodies with an acoustic guitar and hand claps keeping the rhythm makes the song gel immediately, despite the chorus not having the feeling that would make it the icing on this proverbially sonic cake. The Hawaiian, tropical guitar flavor is thrown in halfway through the song, yet comes off as too forced into the vein of Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun”. “Permanent” atones for the subtle miscue, as it’s a deliberately infectious, slow-building tune that Jaye glosses thanks to her light, airy, and angelic vocals that fit the number to a tee. The chorus works far better here as there is little need to compensate for the verses. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before, but when it’s done well it is still very, very effective. Not to mention good ear candy! The guitar solo in the bridge is a tad thin, but fortunately is only a minimal one spanning the middle with the homestretch.
Like most albums, however, Jaye tries to show another side to her music and ends up giving a breather on the record with the downtrodden, reflective “Mental”, which seems a bit aimless initially and wallows in a veil of self-pity. “I used to dim my lights so you could shine / And that’s what hurts, what really hurts”, she sings before the almost pre-requisite strings chime in for a safe and seemingly bland chorus. “Time for Goodbye” is a tad of an improvement, but is the type of song you would expect from Aussie folk popsters the Waifs, a band that could probably carry the reggae-tinted tune far better. The female harmonies are the only memorable portion to the tune, although some might enjoy it after a few repeated listens. By this point it’s difficult to say if she’s lost the plot, but “Somersault” is a number that should shine. Unfortunately, it’s missing the certain something that would really make the song jump from polished studio piece to a strong centerpiece in a live setting. Again, the chorus is quite safe, with Jaye really not doing anything the least bit interesting. “It’s easy to get lost”, she sings during the song, and the line gives you the impression that this is what happened to this once promising tune.
This record could be Exhibit A of what can happen when labels sink their claws into a talented newcomer. You can tell Jaye has the pipes and ability and talent, but the niche she has been molded for has been beaten to death. The voice is strong and soulful at times, but the arrangements do little to showcase this strength. A perfect example of this is during “Traveling Light”, a close run-through of “Somersault” with a pinch of soul added. The one second-side exception is the up-tempo and melodic “Hanalei Road (Lorelei’s Song)”, but even here the hook is quite lackluster. Taj Mahal adds some vocals for a nice change that is basically wasted on lukewarm pop.
Jaye’s highlight is “Can You Sleep”, as the pop format is massaged into a style that is very pleasing for her pipes—soulful with a tinge of lullaby lilt and female harmonies. It’s a side which she can share more of on future albums. As it stands now, songs like “Love Song (For Everyone)” come off as something Nelly Furtado could revel in, not something Courtney Jaye should even be considering.