This is what we know about Charlotte Martin. She's done television ads for McDonald's in Spain, she's survived anorexia, she writes setlists on her arm, she's pretty damn good when it comes to opera, and she thinks of herself sometimes as a "hermit". These are not usually the attributes one associates with a budding young singer, but the former Miss Illinois Teen USA (yes, that too) has worked alongside people such as Pete Yorn. Her debut EP seemed to impress a lot of people with its moderately radio-friendly piano-driven and piano-tinged pop that Rufus Wainwright, Ed Harcourt, and Ben Folds have taken to the next level. Her new and first complete record has a baker's dozen of numbers. But she's far from being unlucky.
Having written all but one of the songs herself, Martin starts off with a lush, string-riddled tone that is a cross between Tori Amos and Vanessa Carlton. "On Your Shore" is the name of the first tune and Martin reaches sparingly into her operatic vocal range, but it's crystal clear that she is knee deep in melancholy and reflection. The string production is almost too much at times, making it far more orchestrated or "bigger" than it needs to be. The fact that the strings compete with her voice and piano is annoying generally. Thankfully she gets rid of the strings during the bridge but only for a few fleeting seconds. It has all the production-value of a large Meat Loaf tune minus the 34 verses and 16 song changes throughout. Strings are good to a point, but she's not taking them on the road, so there's no need for them. The song does nicely without them. What works beautifully is the Fleetwood Mac-tone on "Limits of Our Love", which could be mistaken for Stevie Nicks early on. It gets a tad hi-hat heavy in the chorus, but not enough to tune the tune out.
"Your Armor" has Martin letting her guard down on a ballad that is very solid, despite reeking of melancholia. It's definitely the first true poignant moment examining Martin's year of isolation and loneliness in Los Angeles. But please, enough with the strings! They shouldn't be used to drown a tune but to accentuate it. Kate Bush is another easy comparison, especially on the haunting and slow building "Every Time It Rains". "You thought I'd disappeared but I was always here," she sings as the drums work themselves up. It has single material written all over it as well. This rock-pop motif continues on the darker but solid "Steel". Working with a great melody and a couple of hooks, Martin is able to excel without any question. She also shows her chops at the keys during the conclusion.
"Madman" has more in common with Amos, as lithe harmonies in the backdrop appear while Martin "opens up my mouth to let the Devil shout". She is alone at her piano and doing what she does best while the supporting cast just lends enough of their talents to make is one of the album's high moments. Natalie Merchant is thought of during "Up All Night", with the melody recalling early 10,000 Maniacs or her later solo work. It also has a head-bobbing backbeat, which is rare for the overall genre of piano pop. This leads into another shining ditty entitled "Haunted", recalling a mix of Amos and the edge of PJ Harvey. But this goes back into her niche, a comfortable and sweetly polished, McLachlan-esque "Parade On". With just the right amount of vocal theatrics, Martin has all the talent required and then some on this gem or sleeper pick à la "Angels". She seems to poke fun at her past on "Something Like A Hero" which refers to a "retired beauty queen". Martin again nails the song though and, thank heavens, has left the strings in the closet, replacing them with some vocal gymnastics that are easy on the ears. It also wraps around itself to near perfection, repeating and repeating itself almost like a mantra. After "Beautiful Life", a song that has closing credits written all over it, Martin concludes with "Wild Horses" (yes, that "Wild Horses). She brings it down a darker alleyway minus the timeless faux twang of Jagger. It's quite a challenge, but Martin incorporates it into her own style, making one's hair stand on end or getting chills from the chorus. Overall, this album is perhaps one of the best of the new breed/glut of piano popstresses.