On her debut album full of indie-rock covers, this 15-year old proves that she can really sing; but Birdy's appeal may depend on how much you enjoy desperate, aching piano ballads, because there are a lot of them here.
Birdy, nee Jasmine van den Bogaerde, may be well-known to UK audiences due to her win on a Reality TV singing competition there in 2008. The fact that she was only 12 when she won Open Mic UK may have kept her in the public consciousness a bit more than the typical talent show winner. As an American, my first awareness of Birdy arrived with "Just a Game", her quiet, aching closer to The Hunger Games soundtrack album. In a bit of major label cross-marketing, Birdy's self-titled debut album for Warner Bros. hit North America on the same day as that soundtrack album. But Birdy was released in the UK back in November of 2011, and hearing it six months later in the face of "Just a Game" doesn't necessarily do Bogaerde any favors.
As befits most of the rest of The Hunger Games soundtrack, "Just a Game" is a stripped-down song written by Bogaerde, and producer T Bone Burnett knew well enough to let her do her voice-and-piano thing with minimal interference. Birdy, by contrast, feels like it was guided every step of the way by its three producers, despite mostly following the same formula of just letting Bogaerde sing and accompany herself on piano. The difference is that 10 of Birdy's 11 tracks are cover songs, and not all of them benefit from the stripped (and slowed)-down approach.
It's clear from the opening notes of "1901" that Birdy can really sing. Her voice is rich and soulful, and it's amazing that she's only 15. "1901" also sets much of the template for the rest of the album. Birdy or her producers chose an indie-rock or folk song, slowed it down, and hoped that her voice carries the track. "1901" actually features a full (albeit quiet) band accompaniment, and the novelty of hearing a buoyant Phoenix track morphed into something soft and passionate is a good one. The next song, Bon Iver's "Skinny Love", seems like a natural pick for Bogaerde to cover, and her performance is strong. You can almost see the record company suits standing behind the producer, rubbing their hands together in anticipation of unleashing "the next Adele" on the world. But the songs on Bon Iver's first album came from a really personal place, and no matter how well Birdy sings, it's hard to fully buy into a 15-year old having that same well of emotion. The question of authenticity is a valid one for Bogaerde, but it feels like she deserves at least more of a break on this than the typical TV talent show winner. It's much harder to be cynical about a 15-year old with an amazing voice than a woman in her mid-20's who'll do anything for a shot at fame. Her one composition on the album, "Without a Word", isn't great, but it's solid. Along with "Just a Game", there's potential for better things down the line for Birdy as a singer-songwriter.
What's more of a problem for this album is the lack of variety between the songs. There are only so many covers of indie-rock piano ballads or rearrangements of indie-rock songs turned into piano ballads that a listener can take. Cherry Ghost's "People Help the People" holds up reasonably well, but even the addition of drums doesn't really make Fleet Foxes "White Winter Hymnal" come to life in Birdy's hands. The pattern really starts to take hold in the middle of the album, when Bogaerde tackles the Postal Service's "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" and "I'll Never Forget You" by Frances and the Lights back to back. If the existing song was already a piano ballad, it's going to sound pretty good. If the original arrangement was more robust, there's trouble ahead. Dozens of artists have covered Postal Service songs since Give Up came out a decade ago, and while Birdy's attempt isn't bad on the level of, say Confide's "Such Great Heights", it's not particularly good, either. Substituting rudimentary drum machine beats for Jimmy Tamborello's complex programming is a bad idea, and slowing the tempo down and emphasizing the piano leeches most of the energy out of the song. "I'll Never Forget You", on the other hand, is beautiful and sounds heartfelt.
The one exception to this pattern is the National's "Terrible Love," which serves as the album closer. This is the one case on Birdy where the producers give Bogaerde a true, full arrangement, and it benefits her greatly. The song starts out like most of the rest of the tracks here, but gradually adds in strings as well as drums, guitars, and bass. It doesn't build to the big rock out that the original does, but that's okay. Instead the strings swell along with Bogaerde's voice, and that's an actual arrangement choice beyond "Here, Jasmine, play this on the piano and sing." If nothing else, Birdy shows that Birdy can handle herself when it comes to desperate, aching piano ballads. She's got that covered. This is a strong album on that front, no question. But if she wants to make this music thing a career, she should probably think about convincing her handlers at Warner Bros. in North America and Atlantic in the UK to let her sing some other types of songs in the future. Maybe a few that are not desperate, aching piano ballads.