Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Mariah Carey Reincarnated As Katharine McPhee, Another Bland Idol Experience.

The Good: Moments of voice
The Bad: Dramatically overproduced, Lyrics are dull to outright dumb, Musically unimaginative, Voice is frequently overrun, Themes
The Basics: With its lame lyrics, senseless dance tracks, utter lack of real music and producing over the performer's natural voice, Katharine McPhee is a dud debut.

I’ve never been at all into American Idol, so it was a surprise to me to discover that the c.d. I just picked up, Katharine McPhee, the eponymous album by her, was part of the whole American Idol craze. Once I listened to it, it did not at all surprise me; the album has some of the problems that were common with other Idol contestant albums I’ve found and listened to.

Katharine McPhee is a twelve track, pure pop album that clocks in just under forty-six minutes. This represented pretty much the epitome of female pop-rock performers since the boom of Mariah Carey. I use the word “performer” because McPhee only co-wrote three of the twelve songs, she plays no instruments, and most of the credits are for various producers, including vocal producers. The result is a bland, generic pop music that sounds so canned it’s almost impossible to tell how much is actually the performer singing versus the production elements that are programmed in to create this body of “music.”

This makes McPhee a rather natural successor to Mariah Carey. The performer is not expected to have any real sense of originality or a statement to make. Instead, she is expected to provide a voice to the works of another and when the voice fails, it is simply produced over. It’s astonishing how infrequently McPhee’s natural, actual voice comes through on this album. One might think that with a debut, the artist or performer would at least want to present the insinuation that she had some talent to begin with. Alas, here we have a pretty generic and thorough pop sound with nothing to recommend it in terms of voice or sound.

Lyrically, McPhee might want to take pride in the fact that she is only a co-writer on one quarter of the album’s songs. The writing is pretty lame. For example, the opening track, repeats “It’s a typical love story / We started out as friends / This is how it ends / This is just a typical love story / The boy you never wanted just steals your heart / I never saw it coming till I fell so hard” (“Love Story”). The sentiment is not necessarily a bad one, but the breaking back and forth from first person to second person gets almost as tiresome as the rhyme schemes.

“Over It” continues the trend even worse with predictable rhymes made only to (apparently) make rhymes. We have “bit/it,” “me/be,” “by/why,” and “time/mine,” rhymes that have been done to death and the problem is they are not a part of a poetic construction that is actually saying anything. The song is ostensibly about moving on from a love that is no longer working, but with lines like “Hard and fast a little bit / Now I’m so over it” (“Over It”), one wonders if McPhee actually knows what she is singing.

The final real lyrical terror comes in what is possibly the best track on the album, “Open Toes,” a lame track that sings about fashion . . . specifically shoes. Wow, she sings about looking good and dressing up and buying shoes. That’s exciting. The only reason it is remotely listenable is that it is not yet another pop music track focused on young impressions of love or heartbreak. The problem is that it is an incessantly noisy dance track that seems to be so vastly over produced that any points she gets for actually singing about something different is flushed out by the terrible and banal sound of the dance repetition of the synths and “c’mon, c’mon, let’s go!” in the background.

McPhee’s debut reminds me of Introducing . . .Joss Stone, save that it is stripped of all pretense of talent and creativity. McPhee’s voice is so over-produced to make a generic, computerized pop sound that it rips away almost all of her natural sound. And when her voice breaks through, it is often overrun by the produced musical accompaniment. “Home” seems to be the obvious exception to this and it is the lone track where her voice is presented untouched – in the opening to the song. But even then, it becomes a pretty generic pop track reminiscent of Mariah Carey’s “Hero” or Kelly Clarkson’s “A Moment Like This.” I suppose the prerequisite for the “Idol” finalists’ albums is some measure of schmaltz.

Musically, this is pretty much the archetypal pop-rock programmed work. There are almost no actual instruments used on this album (there is a piano on “Home”) and most of the music is simply referenced in the liner notes as “produced by;” it’s not even a matter of programmed instrumentals like drum machines, it’s just assembled and produced. So, songs like “Not UR Girl,” “Dangerous,” and “Everywhere I Go” sound like they could have been assembled by a computer. If a program were created to create pop-rock music with a hip-hop undertone, this is precisely what a computer would have come up with.

The thing is, McPhee and her producers do not even try to be clever about it. One of the songs uses a repeated “don’t stop, get it get it” line that uses almost the identical progressions to the Gorillaz song “Feel Good, Inc.” The result is that on her debut album, McPhee never distinguishes herself as someone of any (even remote) talent. The music is a lot of bass, programmed drums and a very market-tested mix of danceable tracks (“Open Toes”) and slow jams (“Each Other”).

Katharine McPhee also falls into an annoying trend in current pop-rock music; she relies far too much on background vocalists to carry her refrains and on songs like “Each Other,” it is distracting. There is something very tired about hearing virtually every pop star sigh breathlessly while their background vocalists actually articulate the lyrical message the track is supposed to be conveying. McPhee does this minimally, but when she does (like on “Each Other”) it is just another nail in this musical coffin.

I came to this album with nothing but the album cover to draw me in and what I found was something even someone with an appreciation of 70s and 80s synth pop could not appreciate. The generic quality to the album and its senseless attempts to evoke a reaction – like dancing – is just gut-wrenchingly bad. It’s not even quirky or novel, this is just an annoying musical collection from someone who might have talent.

But if she does, it’s not evident on this album.

The best track is "Ordinary World," just for actually presenting moments of McPhee’s clear voice. The rest of the album is terrible, epitomized by "Dangerous," a mindless dance track with some of the worst, most predictable lyrics in musical history.

For other, similar, female artists, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Be Ok - Ingrid Michaelson
21 - Adele
Addison Road - Addison Road


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

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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