Former Avril Lavigne songwriting buddy and one of Kelly Clarkson's favorite collaborators releases her fourth solo disc, proving that she saves some of the best stuff for herself -- filler included.
Four albums into her career, it’s easy to forget that Chantal Kreviazuk is a solo artist.
This may seem like an odd statement, but Kreviazuk has been lingering in the pop world from behind the scenes, writing and producing dozens of hits for other artists (Kelly Clarkson’s "Walk Away"? Avril Lavigne’s "He Wasn’t"? Gwen Stefani’s "Rich Girl"? Yeah -- all involved with Chantal). She’s a classically trained pianist, but was given a record deal as a vocalist, and somewhere along the way wound up marrying Our Lady Peace frontman Raine Maida. Her albums were critically praised but never racked up huge sales, despite some wonderful songs in prominent places (Trivia: her cover of John Denver’s "Leaving On a Jet Plane" was the second single from the Armageddon soundtrack, after that Aerosmith song you may have heard of). Her songwriting career shows no signs of dwindling (she’s contributed to the forthcoming albums from Mandy Moore and Kelly Clarkson), but with Ghost Stories she sounds ready to break out of the pack, to finally establish herself as full time solo artist.
And here, she comes very close.
If one were to make a populist comparison of her sound, then Chantal Kreviazuk is Vanessa Carlton all grown up, filled with harmony and maturity instead of high school poetry (and the change is welcome). Maida serves as producer (again), and smartly keeps Ghost Stories as guitar-free as possible, keeping Chantal’s piano front and center (with string quartets coming in from every which-way). Chantal’s voice is still a large selling point, as it’s never Broadway-styled belting that goes on, it’s simply a confident, rich coo that sings with conviction, sometimes rubbing next to another populist comparison: Cranberries frontwoman Dolores O'Riordan. Truth be told, the "spot the influence" game could go on all day, but few voices could actually sell a line like "You can never erase that you were not popular in school" (from "Spoke in Tongues") and have you totally believe it. Even near the disc’s close, she holds out notes on "Asylum" like she’s gunning for VH1 Diva status, with Maida’s epic-song-in-the-making production making it sound like the most important song in the world (which it’s not). Much like British jazz artist Jamie Cullum before her, Chantal never wins you over with piano versatility or vocal prowess -- her personality and conviction say more than any show-off maneuvers ever could.
The problem, however, is that these talents aren’t married to particularly strong songs. Opener "Ghosts of You" is full-on melodrama, complete with the mournful string section opening things up like some tear-jerking Broadway ballad. The song never builds to a powerful hook, and Kreviazuk’s lyrical sentiments are as clichéd as you’d expect from a major Adult Contemporary release. It’s not that it’s a bad song, it’s just not an interesting one. Other songs fall into this pattern, somewhat due to Maida’s overdub-happy production, leaving a slight echo on every single instrument (which gives the album a nice richness but makes each individual track nearly indistinguishable that which preceeded it). The production is smoother than a velvet sheet, but it’s because of this that great moments for hooks (like Kreviazuk’s beautiful wail "all I can do is love you to pieces" from "All I Can Do") are underplayed instead of overplayed. Bombast can only go so far.
With that in mind, it should be noted that when the songs work, they are utterly stunning. "Waiting for the Sun" is practically flawless. It’s a ballad of restrained optimism, using generic terms to paint a picture of being nearly happy but never really getting there:
I’m tired of living in the shadows
But I’m not giving up on me
It’s a sad sad world
But I’m still waiting
I can’t worry about tomorrow
Or what its new day is gonna bring
‘cos every dark cloud
Has a silver lining
I’m waiting for the sun to shine
I’ll wait until the day I die
It’s an incredible centerpiece that sets the bar for the rest of the album. Single "Wonderful" comes very close to matching it, built around a simple piano progression where the narrator goes back and forth about whether to call the one she loves, using lots of prepositions to draw a character that’s projecting her confidence outward as if she’ll eventually convince herself she can stand proud by saying it enough. It may not have the same impact as "Waiting for the Sun", but its another yearning number that will hopefully find its way into Zach Braff’s iPod.
The stateside release of this album adds on two excellent tracks (the very Vanessa Carlton-styled "Time" and the light dance-rock of "I Do Believe"), but they’re only cherries on top of the fine sundae that is Ghost Stories. Like her previous albums, she has some absolutely extraordinary songs that are coupled with some merely-passable numbers, making for an uneven, yet interesting, mix of tunes. Her greatest hits album will be a thing to be reckoned with, but so will be that album where she gets everything perfect. She hasn’t made it there yet, but she’s not too far off either.