A folk-pop chanteuse has her Liz Phair middle-aged moment -- trying to make plastic pop music and succeeding all too admirably
Jonatha Brooke has a cool voice and no-question-about-it songwriting talent -- she's proven that over eight albums of distinctive folk-pop, the first two in collaboration with Jennifer Kimball (in their duo, the Story). A decade-plus of good taste and good reviews built a loyal fan base and a reputation good as gold.
Careful What You Wish For is Brooke's seventh solo album, and it's the pop music equivalent of a train coming horribly off the tracks. Sccrrrrreeeeeaach -- crash. Thud. Ouch. The press materials for this album give you fair warning: they boast that Brooke's songs have been covered by third-generation boy band alum (and WB teen show star) Jesse McCarthy and American Idol runner-up Ayla Brown (the hot high school basketball player … yeah, that one). Then, as if those credits were not enough to make you pull out your wallet, you are informed that four of the songs on Careful are collaborations with JC Chasez and Nick Lachey. Hot dog! Brooke fans must be thinking -- Finally Jonatha Brooke is going to sound more like N Sync and 98 Degrees!
On about half the tracks here, that is exactly what you get -- a big mess of overproduction with over-compressed drums, fake-crunchy guitars, masses of background vocals, and dramatic pushes toward the chorus. And the killer thing is -- though the other half of the songs sound pretty good in Brooke's "natural" style -- the bad stuff gets you wondering whether you overrated her during all those folkie years. Is this what she's been working toward? In the press material, Brooke is quoted as being psyched by the new material because "the music really rocked". Jonatha, I know you're around 40 now, so let me clue you in: Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, the Stooges, and Bob Dylan's current band really rock; N Sync and Jesse McCartney do not rock. Don't let your manager tell you otherwise.
Here is the opener and title track: Twenty-five seconds of guitar and vocal before the crunch of guitar and pop piano and synthy percussion starts in, followed by a chorus that sounds like a really bad Queen imitation. The chorus sounds like the paranoid fantasy of someone who hopes her new overproduced pop album will succeed: "Now that I have everything / I'm a puppet on a string / Someone's got the end and I'm unraveling". The singing -- surely Brooke's un-corruptible trump card -- is histrionic and grating, like some kind of Alanis Morissette freak-out.
"You're a Beautiful Girl" might have been an acoustic guitar vehicle that worked reasonably well -- a sardonic meditation on public beauty, maybe? -- but the repetitions and the mechanical pounding of the drums keep everything down, then the out-chorus explodes into sonic goop. If you listen to it again, you realize that there are very few words, in fact, that aren't the oft-repeated chorus, and the whole point of the song is: hey, beautiful girl, be careful. It's a song as thin and undernourished as a real "beautiful girl" in today's culture, not that the song raises even that level of detail or nuance.
Other ponderously overproduced songs include: "Hearsay", "Forgiven", and "Keep the River on Your Right". At the start of "Je N'peux Pas Te Plaire", the lovely singing and finger-picked guitar may put you in a forgiving mood, but then you're thinking, Hey, Jonatha, what's with writing this song in French? I mean, I know you went to Amherst and all, and you're super-smart and everything, but if you're so smart, then what are you doing letting your publicist brag about Jesse McCartney doing your songs?
And here is the killer fact about Careful What You Wish For: the good songs just make it all worse. "I'll Leave the Light On" is a superior story written in the voice of a too-tolerant lover, and the harmony on the chorus between Brooke and her longtime collaborator Eric Bazilian sounds real and earthy. "Baby Wait" is pop music, but the jangling guitars on the chorus, with Brooke multi-tracking a stack of soaring vocals, lift the song off the ground. The bridge even leads with a Jon Brionish passage of bassoon and clarinet before the chorus comes back. The last track, with Brooke alone with her guitar, is a terrific lesson in less is more.
And when you contemplate playing the disc again from the beginning, well, you just don't have the heart. A better idea: fire up your web browser and navigate over to Jennifer Kimball's MySpace page where you can hear the kind of music Jonatha Brooke might have been making if she hadn't fallen in love with being a big break-out pop music star. Jennifer's voice, beautiful and vulnerable and never over-reaching, is backed by a simple band (led by Duke Levine) that knows how to set a voice for emotional effect and -- guess what? -- even rocks when necessary.
Kimball, whose two solo albums are plainly David to Brooke's Goliath, has never collaborated with Jesse McCartney, to my knowledge. Enjoy.