Monday, August 20, 2012

Little Voice 2-Disc Special Edition: Little More To Recommend It Than The Original.

The Good: Some decent lyrics, Moments of voice and/or music, Acoustic versions are interesting...
The Bad: Less distinctive in lyrics, voice and music than I'd like, Meh. Bonus disc hardly special.
The Basics: A disappointing album featuring a piano and vocals artist who writes well, but is musically and vocally unimaginative. Bonus disc not worth the re-buy!

When I first sat down and reviewed Little Voice by Sara Bareilles (reviewed here!), I had high hopes for it. My mother had recommended the album based on Bareilles' appearances on daytime television shows and I was ready to be wowed. So, when I ended up disappointed, I was truly disappointed. The problem I had was that largely, Bareilles sounded like other people on every single track. She didn't have her own voice; her little voice was that of whatever artist the individual track sounded like. It undid the cleverness of her parody "Fairytale" or the smartness of "City."

So, it might seem surprising that I would pick up the two-disc version of Little Voice and give it some spins. Honestly, I wanted to believe that I had missed something on the standard version. I wanted to find I had been wrong. Unfortunately, though, the two-disc version reinforced what I had heard the first time.

This is not to say Little Voice was atrocious, but it's certainly a disappointment following my mother's determined demands that I listen to the album. And more than anything, the work is lacking in something fresh, different, unique and . . . well, interesting to the ears.

With twelve tracks clocking in at 49:01, Little Voice is the sophomore album of singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles. This is the first I've heard of her, though. Her current radio hit, "Love Song" is doing well on the charts and presents Bareilles as a pretty standard pop-rock artist. Atypical in this day in age, though, Bareilles wrote or co-wrote all twelve tracks and she plays piano on nine of the tracks. As well, she provides the primary vocals for all twelve tracks, has a significant background vocal presence on one track as well as playing acoustic guitar on another song as well. So, in many ways, this does seem to be the musical vision of Sara Bareilles.

And, ultimately, it's somewhat boring.

The second disc is a collection of five acoustic tracks and an interview presented as a computer file. The producers of the bonus disc chose well; the five acoustic tracks lend themselves well to the acoustic sound with "Bottle It Up," "Love Song," "In Your Eyes" - a song unique to the acoustic version - "Many The Miles" and "Gravity" sounding different enough from the originals to be interesting for a spin. Likewise, the interview is informative, but something most listeners will not need to come back to more than once.

Bareilles stands out as someone who seems to have something she wants to say and that might well be the best thing Little Voice has going for it. While many of the tracks are about love, Bareilles has a very different take on the standards of the pop-rock conventions. As a result, it makes sense that she opens the album with her current hit, "Love Song," which is all about not writing a love song out of emotional extortion. She has the emphatic lines, "I'm not gonna write you a love song / 'Cause you asked for it / 'Cause you need one . . . / 'Cause you tell me it's / Make or breaking this . . ." ("Love Song") which define her as something other than the most simplistic pop-rock performers or artists today. And that is a good thing.

Love is the predominate theme of Little Voice with the word alone appearing in eight of the twelve songs and thematically the other songs deal with it, usually the longing for it. Bareilles attempts more story-songs with tracks like "Vegas" and "Fairytale" but there is not even the hint of folk-rock in her presentation.

The thematic unity of the album is not necessarily a problem. After all, the songs practice the poetics and over the course of the album, there are some intriguing expressions of love. So, for example, Bareilles has some intriguing thoughts like, "Sleepless nights you creep inside of me / Paint your shadows on the breath that we share / You take more than just my sanity / You take my reason not to care / No ordinary wings I'll need / The sky itself will carry me back to you . . ." ("One Sweet Love"). She has a decent sense of imagery.

Bareilles seems to have a higher sense of diction than most of her peers in the Top 40 pop-rock charts. With lines like, "Here's the simplification of everything we're going through / You plus me is bad news . . .. You love the chaste but hate me for the runaround / And we both just tired of the whole thing" ("Love On The Rocks") does seem a little better than the average lines.

And while younger audiences seem to be the target of this album, Bareilles sings about smoking ("Come Round Soon") and those offended by such things ought to know that. For my part, it's not a big deal in music.

Far more problematic is the music on Little Voice. Vocally, Bareilles is hard to nail down to one niche or genre. Instead, she is all over the spectrum, sounding like Mariah Carey on "Love On The Rocks," like Kelly Clarkson on "Many The Miles," like Sarah McLachlan on "Between The Lines," and - as passe as the comparisons have already become - like Norah Jones or Fiona Apple on other tracks. On "City," Bareilles sounds like Aimee Mann from the Magnolia soundtrack (reviewed here!).

The acoustic tracks on the second disc offer the only real musical variety and the problem there is simple; while the altered versions of the songs sound different from the originals, they sound more or less similar to one another. It's like Bareilles only has a chance to sound like others or like whatever new thing she is attempting; she never finds her own voice fully on this album, even the bonus disc.

The fundamental problem with the vocals on Little Voice is that Bareilles does not seem to have found her voice. She sounds like everyone else, lending nothing interesting or even intriguing to the "dialogue" of pop-rock. Her lyrics are mildly interesting, but the vocals are safe alto and tenor range vocals that do not do anything to challenge anything we have heard before. Unlike some annoying pop-rock vocalists whose voices are distinct and stick with the listener, even if we do not like them, Bareilles is utterly forgettable in her vocals.

Indeed, on tracks like "Many The Miles," Bareilles repeats the title line over and over again in such a hypnotic and atonal way as to make the song largely unmemorable. This is unfortunate because we want to believe that this young woman has some genuine talent.

It seems like it is only on the final track, "Gravity," that Bareilles illustrates genuine vocal talent. She stretches her range up into the soprano field and illustrates real lung capacity with her ability to bellow it out and she is impressive there. But this is the exception rather than the rule of her talent here. "Gravity" illustrates something that the other tracks do not have and that is sad. It does, however, justify the belief that Bareilles has some talent.

Unfortunately, it is not terrible evident on Little Voice. This is especially pronounced in the music on the album. "Fairy Tale" is a creative recounting of popular fairy tales with disaffected princesses singing their laments about how their lives have not turned out like a storybook ending. This is a wonderful idea, but the piano that drives the song sounds entirely familiar.

Moreover, "Morningside" sounds like it uses musical moments from a George Michael or Wham! song (it's just outside memory).

Little Voice is a pretty typical young woman with a piano sound. Supported with a bass and a drum set - and a guitar on most of the tracks - this album has a musical style that is archetypal pop-rock. Narrowing it down more than that is somewhat pointless; virtually every track sounds like something I've heard before from another musical artist and this is disappointing to recognize in a young artist.

In other words, there is a whole familiar piano on this; the sound is nothing new. It plays along the current conventions of what pop-rock music is instead of challenging those conventions or pushing the definition of pop-rock out further than it has been. I like more from my young, emerging artists. Ultimately, that is the death knell of "Little Voice. It is unambitious and strangely dull and we want something better.

The best track might well be "Gravity," the low point is "Come Round Soon."

For other independent female artists, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Crossing - Sophie B. Hawkins
Criminal (single) – Fiona Apple
The Dresden Dolls - The Dresden Dolls


For other music reviews, check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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