Every reviewer approaches a given artist’s work with some degree of bias. So, I’ll admit upfront I am biased in favor of singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton and was predisposed to liking her newest CD, Heroes & Thieves.
How predisposed was I? Well, when her previous CD, Harmonium, came out in 2002, I became so obsessed with the single “White Houses” I played it non-stop for days. No, wait, make that weeks. OK, OK, I obsessed over this song for months. I converted the MP3 into a wave file and did some of my own edits. I spent so much time thinking about the song’s story (teenage girl loses her virginity and looks back in regret) that I used to dream the song. Why was the song’s male character wearing a red shirt? Was that a foreshadowing of the blood Carlton references on the bridge? And why did this song remind me of the obscure 1980 tune “Straight Lines” by the UK band New Music? Was it something in the melody? Or did it tap into a similar lyrical theme about displacement in society? And why was a guy in his 30s (me) this moved by a song about a circumstance (and gender) from which I’m very removed?
Eventually, I was hospitalized and they gave me little yellow pills to obliterate the “White Houses” in my head. OK, I’m kidding about that part. But I really did get committed — committed to the concept of Vanessa Carlton as a brilliant singer-songwriter who, I believe, was unfairly marginalized as a teen-pop singer because her first hit, “A Thousand Miles”, connected with the post-Britney crowd. They may have, like, so outgrown Carlton in no time, but Carlton, then 22, was just starting to grow as a musician.
Heroes & Thieves is filled with more melodies from the classically-trained pianist who is now 27. There was concern amongst fans (who call themselves “‘Nessaholics”) that this release would be an embarrassingly commercial bid for big-time success, since Carlton had signed to Irv Gotti’s hip hop-oriented The Inc label after parting with her previous label, A&M, when “Harmonium” didn’t sell as well as expected. Carlton, though, stayed true to her muse. She didn’t dump the lyrical approach and start singing about being “Promiscuous” or some such thing. In fact, she’s more like herself now than she ever was before (to loosely paraphrase an old saying).
The 11-song effort is pure ‘Nessa, down to the tinkling piano hooks, the confessional lyrics and the high-pitched vocals. As that might suggest, Carlton is one of the many disciples of the style Tori Amos pioneered (via Kate Bush and Laura Nyro). While Carlton doesn’t have Amos’ flair for innovation and rule-breaking, her more conventional style has its rewards because her songs are just so damned melodic, you can’t stop humming them.
The CD opener (and debut single) “Nolita Fairytale” layers an off-kilter melody over an insistent beat. Its title may be all but inscrutable to everyone but New Yorkers since it refers to a little-known section of Manhattan (where Carlton now lives). And the lyrics are so personal they read like lines from a diary: “I lose my way searching for stage lights; but Stevie knows and I thank her so”. The “Stevie” in question is Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks who helped sequence the CD and sings on the ballad “The One”, which is a wistful look back at a long lost college flame (lots of Carlton songs are wistful looks back; it’s part of her charm).
The best number here is arguably “Spring Street”, a tale of a daughter breaking away from her mother and starting a new life. The semi-autobiographical lyrics offer lots of philosophical food for thought, but it’s the chorus that really says something. It goes: “Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah.” I mean that seriously; the wordless chorus really does galvanize the emotion of the tune with its sing-along catchiness. “The One” was co-written with hitmaking producer Linda Perry (Pink, Christina Aguliera), as was “This Time”, a power ballad that has insomniac Carlton lying in bed regretting a failed love affair.
That affair is most likely the one Carlton had with Third Eye Blind front man Stephan Jenkins who co-wrote several songs and also serves as producer. The two musicians ended their relationship midway through the project, and that colored the tone of much of Heroes & Thieves, Carlton has said. Thus, in a love song like “Hands on Me”, it’s hard to listen and not wonder “Hm. Was Jenkins the guy she met at the video exchange? Or is that some new guy? And wouldn’t someone with her level of fame want to get Netflix”? But the beauty of this music is that it’s not just a bunch of tunes ground out to serve as the basis for lyrical conceits. Carlton’s songs ring with the authority of classic pop, and in that sense she’s probably more of a throwback to Carole King than Amos (although Carlton was born almost a decade after King’s “Tapestry” was released).
Heroes & Thieves isn’t a perfect album and sometimes gets too idiosyncratic and precious for its own good. It’s already spawned its share of detractors, specifically reviewers who question whether Carlton has the vocal goods to pull off some of the more complicated numbers. I think her imperfect singing keeps her sounding human and give her props for not messing with a pitch correction program. And if you feel the same, well, maybe you too should start thinking you might have a problem with ‘Nessa addiction. See you at the next ‘Nessaholics meeting.