Be Not Nobody, Vanessa Carlton’s 2002 multi-platinum debut, was said to be charming in its naiveté, with its songs of puppy-love filled with quasi-classical piano runs and cutesy-pie vocals riding on top of overwrought pop arrangements that were, quite frankly, absurd . That she got away with it was due to a few good pop songs (“A Thousand Miles”, “Ordinary Day”) and an overly receptive public and music press. “She writes her own songs! She can play piano!” Well, so what? She’s a musician; shouldn’t she already be able to do those things? Since when did these most basic musical requirements become something to shout out from the rooftops? Carlton was the anti-Britney, or some such nonsense. People were talking about her as if she was the new Joni Mitchell, for God’s sake.
Fast-forward to the present, and the now twenty-four year-old Carlton has released her sophomore CD,Harmonium. It’s Carlton’s aim for acceptance as an adult, but it’s quite clear from the songs themselves to the silly, uncomfortably posed photographs to the groan-inducing liner notes that this is a calculated and shockingly immature album that fails miserably to make any point whatsoever. You can’t simply put strings on next to every song and think that makes you a mature artist.
“White Houses”, the first single off of Harmonium, basically sums up everything that’s wrong with the album: An overly familiar vocal melody, juvenile “Dear Diary” lyrics (with lots of references to “boys” plus a cringe-worthy reference to John Steinbeck) and a bombastic backing arrangement that would make Jim Steinman blush. Produced by Third Eye Blind main-man and Carlton hubby Stephan Jenkins, there’s an “everything PLUS the kitchen sink” quality to the tracks on Harmonium, yet rather than adding muscle to the songs, the arrangements only point out how hollow they really are. It’s hard to get into an in-depth analysis of the tracks here, since there honestly isn’t any depth to Harmonium to speak of.
Worst of all, there isn’t anything to save the album from its own pomposity. There’s nothing on par with “A Thousand Miles” here, and Carlton seems so busy with showing everyone how grown-up she is now, that she forgot to put any hooks in the songs. The problem could be an over-reliance on Jenkins, but even he knows a good hook when he hears it, no matter how vanilla his band’s sound is.
When I look at the sheer amount of people involved with this album, it’s really not all that surprising how unconvincing it is. Harmonium is a textbook case of a young, inexperienced singer/songwriter being molded by the suits back in the boardroom to get the most cents back on their dollar. Carlton is a cash cow on the teen-queen market, and A&M is looking to further their investment by presenting her as a clean-cut Tori Amos for the middle-of-the-road masses. Of course, the Tori Amos comparison is preposterous, and Carlton is clearly not yet a strong enough personality to make a good album on her own, but anything would be better than this. One has to wonder how long it will be before we hear the inevitable “the industry ate me up” stories from Vanessa Carlton. Perhaps when this record fails to outsell her debut and A&M drops her?
I once saw Carlton performing solo in New York about a year before her debut album was released, and was really quite impressed with her. She is most effective when it’s just her and a piano, and she does know how to use both her voice and instrument dynamically and convincingly. However, her two albums have been mainly crap, and offer nothing of the musician I saw performing down in the East Village. I hope she can find that voice again, and stops relying on others to dictate who and what she should be. Harmonium is certainly not the work of a twenty-four year-old woman, and Carlton needs to go away and grow up already. Perhaps Tori Amos isn’t such a bad touchstone after all.