Thursday, April 18, 2013

I'm Thankful I Won't Have To Listen To This Schmaltz The Rest Of My Life!

The Good: Moments of voice
The Bad: Erratic musical presentation, Canned lyrics, Boring and generic, REPETITIVE!
The Basics: Saved from the bottom rung only by the moments where Clarkson's voice comes through strong, Thankful is a disappointment.

The last few months, I've been opening up and exploring more musical artists and performers than I've previously been. This led me, with suspicion and low expectations in my mind to Kelly Clarkson's album Breakaway (reviewed here!), which I was surprised to find I enjoyed. Usually, I try to take artists in order of their works, so I felt I ought to find a copy of Kelly Clarkson's debut and give it a spin.

Ugh. Thankful, Kelly Clarkson's American Idol prize recording is a twelve-track festival of schmaltz. I've long argued that Kelly Clarkson is, by definition, the best American Idol will ever produce. Why? Anyone who had both the talent and the ambition to truly be a recording star would have been on the first season of American Idol. A truly ambitious and qualitatively great artist or performer would not wait to see if the show was going to be a hit before auditioning, they would fight to get on the show and win. To wit, none of the other American Idol winners or performers have had the commercial success of Clarkson (Clay Aiken has come the closest and he wasn't even the "winner" of his season). So, for example, in the satire American Dreamz (reviewed here!), it made sense that the "Idol" parody would be one of Clarkson and the viewer assumes that she is a big enough person to take it.

Schmaltz, then, for those not familiar with the terms, is a derogatory for overly melodramatic, sugary emotionalism that is designed - usually - to get the listener to weep or look off into the distance with longing for a past better than the moment. It's cheap, obvious emotionalism that feels like it is trying to harken to something within the listener. Much of Thankful - the album - is schmaltzy; sadly sung songs that try to elicit an emotional reaction. They frequently are over-the-top in the attempt containing the Streisand-like warbles in the high vocal range that attempt to showcase a quality voice and bring a tear to the listener's eye.

The problem is Thankful is too erratic in its presentation and content to even be completely schmaltzy. Instead, it's a disappointing collection of singles that sounds more like it was tossed together by someone who had virtually no idea of how to assemble an album.

Before one simply rejects this critique, it's important to note that this is not a criticism of Kelly Clarkson. As Clarkson prepares to release her third album (rumored to be her vision, one that was fought for), it's worth noting that Thankful is minimally Kelly Clarkson. Of the twelve tracks, Clarkson co-wrote only four. She plays no instruments, she was not involved (at least not credited) with any of the production. At best, she provided some of the backing vocals to her own primary vocals.

On Thankful, Kelly Clarkson shows up, is photographed for the liner notes and sings. Largely, this album is Kelly Clarkson, performer, as opposed to any genuine sense of Kelly Clarkson, musical artist. Frankly, the world does not need another performer.

Clocking in at roughly just under forty-six minutes, Thankful, then becomes a quest for Kelly Clarkson to find her own voice and place. Sadly, the album is assembled in such a way that she fails completely. Instead, track by track, Clarkson struggles to find a voice and ends up mimicking other, established artists. "Anytime" has Clarkson as Celine Dion, "Beautiful Disaster" and "The Trouble With Love Is" could have easily come from Mariah Carey and "Miss Independent" sounds more like co-author Christina Aquilera's performances.

The point here is that the album is erratic as far as the sound and presentations Clarkson makes, resulting in a number of derivative performances that fail to capitalize on any innate talent Clarkson may have. Often the vocals of Clarkson are overproduced and mixed so as to be virtually indistinguishable from the backing music. So, for example, on "Miss Independent," Clarkson's foray into the upper ranges of her vocal abilities with volume are mixed with production elements of guitars (I would have sworn synths, but they're not credited) so they are blended and her voice is actually lost.

As for the lyrics, they range from canned to utterly phony. Take, for example, Clarkson's schmaltzy debut single "A Moment Like This," which she performed after winning the first American Idol. In it, she sings about how ". . . Some people wait a lifetime / For a moment like this . . .I can't believe it's happening to me . . ." ("A Moment Like This"). It's never good when an artist lies to her fans. Clarkson, of course spent a great deal of time working for this goal. She might have been surprised, but as this was a goal of hers, she must have had some idea of what it was she was working for and envisioned it. But, oh yea, Clarkson did not write that. She just performed it.

Most of the songs have predictable rhyme schemes that do not challenge the expectations of what is coming next, nor do they impress the listener with any idea of sophistication. Take, for example, "Low," with its lines like "It's cool you didn't want me / Sometimes you can't go back / Why'd you have to go and make a mess like that / I just have to say, before I let go / Have you ever been low . . ." The lines are uninspired and they don't so much say anything with poetics and grace as they simply set up the next rhyme. She (or writer Jimmy Harry) rhymes "low/so," "go/low," "regret/that," etc. and the whole song feels canned.

And then there's the repetition. I swear if this album used each refrain only once it would be less than half an hour long. "Low," because I'm on it at the moment, repeats its refrain at least five times and it doesn't get better with repeated listens. The thing is, virtually all of the songs keep repeating themselves over and over again and the album wears thin quite quickly.

Beyond that, the musical presentations are dull and more sloppy than diverse. On Sophie B. Hawkins's album Timbre (reviewed here!), Hawkins presents a number of musical styles and forms. The album is assembled in such a way that the feeling of the entire work is that Hawkins is an artist who is able to spread out, experiment and create something that is truly diverse and clever. On Thankful, Clarkson's management seems to have less finesse and style and the album erratically puts pure pop-dance track ("Miss Independent") before a string of vocally-powered slow ballads. I understand the desire to break up the long procession of orchestra-backed pieces, but the album poorly arranges the tracks and the entire middle is one dull, gelatinous pop presentation that does not stick with the listener.

The music is universally unimpressive. "What's Up Lonely" sounds like a Top 40 produced hit, down to the fact that listening to it, it sounds like the track is using a drum machine (the drums on this track are, indeed, programmed). It has a generic, overproduced sound that carries equal weight with Clarkson's voice and the overwhelming backing vocals. Every time Clarkson sings how she is ". . . tired of singing this same, sad song" ("What's Up Lonely"), I sit up and yell "We're tired of hearing it!" This song has more of an R&B feel to it and again, the impression is less that Clarkson is a diverse artist and more that her producers didn't know what to stick her with and took the shotgun approach.

Overwhelmingly, sloppy arrangement or not, Clarkson's Thankful is assembled in such a way that emphasizes her pop performance abilities. The album goes from pop ballad to pop-dance, ballad, ballad, r&b ballad (sounds similar), pop-rock track, ballad, etc. While the album is dominated by guitars and keyboards, there is nothing distinct in any of the songs for their music. They sound - often - like programmed, prefab instruments that are not distinctive or in any way impressive or unique.

And I've yet to figure out why the last two tracks, "A Moment Like This" and "Before Your Love" are considered "bonus tracks." They are both listed as new mixes, but I've not found any copies of this album that lack those tracks and, frankly, the album would be so short without them that it would not be worth it. As it is, it's not worth it even with them. I look forward to Clarkson's next album and the idea of her coming into her own as an artist. On Thankful, she illustrates that she can be a useful tool to those who know how to control pop culture.

Even the best track, "Beautiful Disaster" is repetitive, but it's lightyears ahead of the dull pop of "You Thought Wrong."

For other female musical artists, please visit my reviews of:
Loose - Nelly Furtado
Girls & Boys - Ingrid Michaelson
Glowstars - Heather Nova


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

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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