Sunday, November 27, 2011

If Anyone Can Be Ok, It Is Ingrid Michaelson!

The Good: Great voice, Some decent lyrics, Covers are good
The Bad: SHORT!, Illustrates no real growth for the artist, Musically understated/repetitive
The Basics: A much more enthusiastic "recommend" than the "average" rating, Ingrid Michaelson's Be Ok leaves the listener wanting more...and wondering why it isn't on here!

A few years back, I was watching television and I saw a commercial for The Gap and the only reason I did not flip the channel from the Hollywood beautiful women crossing my screen was the music. The song was "The Way I Am" and it was from the Ingrid Michaelson c.d. Girls And Boys. It was on the commercial because it referenced sweaters. With her new album, Be Ok, I suspect that The Gap might avoid the title track and instead go for the penultimate track "You And I." I suggest this, not just because it references sweaters again, but rather because it has a whole sound of community and right around the holidays, that seems to be when The Gap brings out their commercials of lots of different people together singing and looking happy.

Be Ok is a fresh, diverse c.d. and the way I finally reconciled it was to compare it to Hem's album No Word From Tom. On that album, Hem presented completed versions of previously released songs, covers, and live versions of their earlier works as well. On Be Ok, Ingrid Michaelson has two cover songs, two live tracks and an acoustic version of a track intermixed with the brand new songs. And it is a good album, don't get me wrong. This is one that I am enthusiastically recommending to anyone who likes female singer-songwriters. But objectively, it's taking a hit with the star rating because it is rather short (Michaelson could have put her prior album and this one together on a c.d. without necessarily even losing a track the way they pack them in nowadays!) and musically, it illustrates little growth from Girls And Boys.

With only eleven tracks and a running time of 32:12, Ingrid Michaelson is capitalizing on her past success(es) and songs that easily fit her vocal talents without providing a whole lot that is new. Considering that "Over The Rainbow" and "Can't Help Falling In Love" are covers, this is not entirely an expression of Michaelson's own artistic abilities. Similarly, putting a live version of her biggest mainstream hit, "The Way I Am" on Be Ok seems odd, especially considering how little production there was on the original track. And putting “Be Ok” on the album twice (the final track is an acoustic version of the song) is just annoying (the song is terribly repetitive). That said, she wrote all but the two songs ("The Chain" is NOT a cover of the Fleetwood Mac song!) and she appears to have done the primary vocals on every track. If she is playing her own instruments, that is not clear by the liner notes which are pretty paltry. To her credit, though, Michaelson does have a production or co-production credit on seven of the songs. It seems like it would be her musical vision, then.

And to be fair to Michaelson, it's a good album. It is honestly been hard since I picked up the album yesterday (yes, I've already listened to it more than eight times!) to turn it off and go back to listening to the stack of James Taylor c.d.s I have to listen to, review and post (they'll start tomorrow!). The songs range from the subtle and melancholy ("Giving Up," "The Chain") to the annoyingly peppy (“Be Ok,” "You And I").

For those not familiar with Ingrid Michaelson (not much of a surprise considering her previous album and its prime single did not break out the way many of us hoped it might), Michaelson is pretty much the embodiment of the stereotype of the one woman with a guitar and spirit. Her lyrics strike one as the type of young woman who would sit in classes writing poetry as opposed to paying attention and her sound is minimalistic and often folksy. “Be Ok” is accompanied by an easy guitar strumming tune and a snapping sound before the tambourine comes in. "The Chain" is vocally haunting because of the supporting vocals. There is minimal percussion on most of the tracks and it is generally a quiet album.

Songs like "Over The Rainbow" illustrate her range. This might well have been the perfect choice for her to cover. Accompanied by a guitar or banjo (it does not sound like she is using a ukulele) she allows her soprano voice to do the talking. To that end, Michaelson has a pretty impressive range. She keeps solidly alto on Be Ok, goes from lower into the soprano range on "Giving Up" and gives a rousing soprano performance for "Over The Rainbow." She has impressive vocal abilities, even if she seldom holds notes terribly long.

Like her superlative "Glass" on Girls And Boys, Ingrid Michaelson illustrates impressive lyrical abilities on "Giving Up." On that track, she sings a sad song wherein the musical protagonist begins to question her relationship and then resolves to leave over the course of lines like "What if we stop having a ball? / What if the paint chips from the wall? /What if there's always cups in the sink? /What if I'm not what you think I am? /What if I fall further than you? / What if you dream of somebody new? /What if I never let you win, chase you with a rolling pin? / Well what if I do?/ I am giving up on making passes and / I am giving up on half empty glasses and / I am giving up on greener grasses. / I am giving up" ("Giving Up"). Michaelson's diction might not be incredible, but her expressive abilities are solid; she has a universal sentiment and an amazing way to phrase it!

She continues that ability and level of emotive quality on her story-song "The Chain." "The Chain" is one of three songs recorded live on Be Ok and it is the only one that includes the annoying conceit of crowd noises responding to the song at the very end, as if to prove to the listener that it actually was recorded live. And for a change, I'm fine with that: the audience cheers at the end of "The Chain" and I felt like cheering at least the first four times I heard this song. Why? It's impressive in its style and lyrical strength. Michaelson sings a beautiful story when she sings "The sky looks pissed / The wind talks back / My bones are shifting in my skin / And you, my love, are gone. / My room seems wrong / My bed won't fit / I cannot seem to operate / And you, my love, are gone. / So glide away and so be healed / I promise not to promise anymore / And if you come around again / Then I will take . . . the chain from off the door" ("The Chain").

What makes "The Chain" so wrenching is that the refrain continues to be repeated as a cannon and it is quite extraordinary. I'm not big on repetition, but Michaelson knows how to do this to make an agonizing (in the best possible way) track. She expresses desire and loss and eager anticipation in that cannon until she brings it all closed with a stark reunion of all the voices. It is exceptional and if one had to use one track to try to sell this album, it ought to be that one.

I write that in stark opposition to “Be Ok,” the album's title track and a song that kills quite a few of the minutes on this album given that it opens and an acoustic version closes the album. This song suffers for two reasons: 1. I play my albums on a continuous loop and there aren't a ton of differences between the produced and acoustic versions of the song and 2. It is a repetitive song to begin with. This peppy, upbeat, annoying track, is plagued by repetition with its foot-tapping beat to the lines "I just want to be ok, be ok, be ok / I just want to be ok today / I just want to be ok, be ok, be ok / I just want to be ok today" (“Be Ok”). "Ok" is repeated an excruciating nineteen times and is only trumped by "today," which is sung twenty-four times in the song.

The reason this is so problematic is that it certainly seems that Michaelson has the talent to write more and better and she wastes it some with “Be Ok.”

What she does illustrate an impressive talent for is interpretations. I've heard "Can't Help Falling In Love" from UB40 and Elvis Presley and I've never heard it with the longing that Michaelson puts into it. Indeed, in her version, when she sings "take my hand . . ." there is a quality that is infused with quiet desperation, as the musical protagonist essentially begs to be loved and there is no evidence that she gets her wish! It is heartwrenching.

Michaelson's guitarwork shows little progress between her last album and this one. She is still unambitious musically and while there is nothing wrong with letting her voice carry most of the songs, her limitations reminded me of A Fine Frenzy's album One Cell In The Sea (reviewed here!) which I was left feeling rather ambivalent about when I picked that up earlier this year. Similarly, "Over The Rainbow," "Oh What A Day" and "You And I" all have the same opening guitar sound. With songs on an already short and repetitive album sounding so alike, it makes one wonder if Michaelson is simply phoning the instrumentals in.

Still, Be Ok has an infectious quality that makes it an overall pleasant album and great for kicking back in the evening to listen to, especially with a loved one. It is mellow, expressive and good.

It is a rare thing that I have trouble picking a superlative song, but on Be Ok it is a tight race between "Giving Up," "The Chain," and "You And I." Because I suspect that "You And I" might get some decent exposure and be the obvious choice, I'm nailing it down to "The Chain" for the best track on Be Ok (it's so beautiful!). The low point is "Lady In Spain" which has a pretty obvious rhyme scheme.

For other cool female artists, please check out my reviews of:
Closer: The Best Of Sarah McLachlan - Sarah McLachlan
300 Days At Sea - Heather Nova
21 - Adele


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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