Vanessa Carlton
Harmonium
2004
C



be Not Nobody was an uneven affair. Which is to say it’s like most pop musicians debut albums. “A Thousand Miles” and “Ordinary Day” were extraordinary affairs, particularly the former, but the record was suffused with its fair share of filler. What distinguishes her second album, Harmonium, from its predecessor is its incredible consistency. Aside from the stunning “White Houses”, which opens the album with Technicolor snippets of diary scribblings arranged just so as to evoke a universal story that nonetheless is incredibly personal, the album doesn’t suffer from incredible highs and lows. In fact, after its opening salvo, the record operates much in the same manner as Avril Lavigne’s recent effort: solid, but hit single-less.

The first half of the record is primarily a happy ordeal. “Annie”, a song about a fan dying of an unnamed disease, even reaches ecstatic moments via its energetic backing track of Carlton’s Glassian circular piano loops and verses that reveals that, yes, indeed Stephen Jenkins (Third Eye Blind, boyfriend) is the co-producer of this record. By which it’s meant to say that they plod in a very enjoyable way. The clincher of this side of the record, however, is “San Francisco” which sees Carlton revealing that she’s attained her “utopia” and that it’s a “we’re” instead of “I’m” that’s back in the city. Even the saddest moment, musically, on the first side reveals Carlton as finally “free” to do as she pleases, with the “wind at her back”.

By the end of the first half of the record you’re caught in the position of many parents. The question is how you want to be. The consoling father? Or the disapproving mother? If you chose option a, Carlton’s cover of U2’s “Where the Streets Have no Name” will break your heart. If it was option b, you can begin the litany’s of “I told you so’s”. Singing with half of the emotion that Bono put forth in the original, Carlton brings her voice to bear on one particular lyric: “and our love turns to rust”. It’s here that the song hinges and turns the entire album into a much darker place. Sure, hints were dropped briefly earlier on: she refers to the losing of her virginity as her “first…mistake” and perhaps the boyfriend that snaps the picture of her and Annie can never feel the connection that she does to her dying fan, but from here on the songs focus on break-ups and mishaps rather than the relative celebration of the first side.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the second side is also the more adventureous musically. “Winter” features mournful horns, while “C’est La Vie” engages her inner Fiona Apple/Jon Brion forsaking her usual grand piano for a harpsichord-sounding keyboard. “Papa” then goes on to move closer to Tori Amos, her piano and voice the only instruments on display.

It’s on this second side, where things get interesting, that the major problem with the album begins to cut into the enjoyment of the disc however. Carlton’s lyrics, as noted above, tend to veer towards the diary entry style that has come to define many of her contemporaries. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help in cases where less is more—as on the aforementioned “Papa” and “The Wreckage”. It’s only when Carlton wordlessly moans in “The Wreckage” that the horror of which she speaks comes out. Needless to say, the last verse is an extraneous recapitulation, which could have been better served as a fade-out.

But then again, Carlton probably can’t help herself. So in love with her own writing, it must be hard not to hear it one more time. The problem with this is that Carlton’s not clever or poignant enough here to pull it off. Much like “Annie”, the sentiments that are trying to be expressed fall oddly short of the very serious intent.

There’s a lot to be said for this, however. And when Carlton does it right, as on “White Houses” and “She Floats”, the results are magnificent. Even if this album perhaps only has one hope for a hit single, the album is much stronger and reflects that unlike many of her contemporaries, Carlton is moving forwards and towards something. What that something is remains to be seen, but I’ll probably be listening to find out.



Reviewed by: Charles Merwin
Reviewed on: 2004-11-11
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