Thursday, July 10, 2014

Ingrid Michaelson Goes Collaborative On Lights Out!

The Good: Decent lyrics, Diverse sound, Moments of voice
The Bad: I want more! (Duration)
The Basics: Ingrid Michaelson's latest, Lights Out showcases the artist’s musical range and willingness to share the stage with other performers on what might well be her best album yet!

Today is my 5 1/4 year anniversary with my wife and when I returned from work this morning, she had gifts for me. I had gifts for her, too, but I had forgotten what it was I had packaged up for her. Because she recently spent days digitizing my c.d. collection and putting it on my old iPod Touch (reviewed here!), one of my wife’s two gifts to me was a bit predictable, but not at all unwelcome. It was the c.d. of Lights Out, Ingrid Michaelson’s latest album. When she purchased this gift for me, my wife got the digital copy of Lights Out and put it on my restocked iPod, so I’ve been listening to it quite a lot lately. There is something ironic about hearing “Girls And Boys” – the first single from Lights Out - coming over the speakers at work as I listen to my iPod there . . . with the express purpose of avoiding the largely nauseating blend of music my workplace has for my nightly toils.

So, despite the fact that today is the first day I have had the physical c.d., I have been listening to Lights Out in pretty heavy rotation the last two weeks. Moreover, I have been listening to Lights Out in quick succession to other Ingrid Michaelson albums and works by other musical artists who have been favorites of mine – most notably Heather Nova and Dar Williams. With Lights Out, Ingrid Michaelson firmly establishes herself as one of my favorites whose complete library I will continue to collect, albums unheard. That is a rare thing for me; I usually only buy new music after three singles from the album sway me! But by Lights Out, the trajectory of Michaelson’s talent arc has become clear and compelling enough for her to have earned the faith of her listeners. On Lights Out, Ingrid Michaelson presents her most musically-rich album to date . . . without sacrificing her natural vocal talents or her creative writing talents.

Either I have grown in my tastes or Ingrid Michaelson does something seriously right with the way she collaborates with other musical artists on Lights Out. I recall being oddly upset when I heard Dar Williams performing “Better Things” on End Of The Summer (reviewed here!) with a guest male vocalist (having heard live versions with just Williams and thinking that was sufficient); I had a strange indignant thought whenever I heard the album version, like “Why does she feel she needs this guy on the song with her?!” I suppose if I still held such a narrow view out of what I expect from my musical artists, I would hate Lights Out. On Lights Out, Ingrid Michaelson collaborates with at least five other artists, most notably Trent Dabbs, who co-wrote six of the fourteen songs on Lights Out. The thing is, despite having more “help” with the writing and performing on Lights Out, the album still has the tone and quality one expects from Ingrid Michaelson. I almost wrote “Lights Out still sounds like an Ingrid Michaelson album,” but that is not true at all. On Lights Out, Michaelson explodes her sound by exploring a much richer sound than her traditional “one woman and a piano” or “one woman and a guitar” sound that defined many of her earlier works.

At 54:01, the biggest detractions to Lights Out are that it is short and frontloaded (after “One Night Town” – track 8 – the album starts sounding like a much more traditional Ingrid Michaelson album). It is interesting, though, that for the last six songs, the most musically bold track, “Stick,” has lyrics that are much more consistent with Michaelson’s prior emotional tenor than the others; it is like Michaelson is insistent on experimenting on Lights Out, while remaining committed to some emotional truth she possesses. Either way, Lights Out is a wonderful blend of audacious new sounds from Ingrid Michaelson and a sense of familiarity from the artist. For such a young artist, Ingrid Michaelson’s musically experimental nature is remarkably successful on Lights Out.

And Lights Out is largely the musical vision of Ingrid Michaelson. Michaelson may have only wrote four of the songs on her own (usually she writes all of her own works, so this is not a defect of talent, but rather a creative direction the artist has chosen to go in – in contrast to someone like, for example, Britney Spears, who took several albums to get to the point where she wrote as much material on her own), but she co-wrote the other ten songs, usually with Trent Dabbs. Michaelson provides all of the primary vocals and plays piano or omnichord on the songs. She is also credited with additional production for the album, though there are several producers for the album. Regardless, Lights Out seems very much to be the creative work of Ingrid Michaelson, as opposed to an album mashed together from various hitmaker producers.

On Lights Out, Michaelson has a very diverse musical sound . . . within the bounds of pop-rock. There is the slow, haunting ballad “Wonderful Unknown” which is mirrored by the final track “Everyone Is Gonna Love Me Now.” Michaelson’s familiar poppy, upbeat-sounding songs are represented on Lights Out like “Girls Chase Boys,” “One Night Town,” and “Warpath” (which is poppy, but not peppy). As if determined not to throw listeners from her established “one woman and a piano” sound, Ingrid Michaelson starts the album off with “Home,” which is familiar save that it amps up the volume and musical depth.

Vocally, Ingrid Michaelson showcases her range extraordinarily well on Lights Out. While Michaelson usually remains in her alto range, on songs like “Wonderful Unknown” and “Over You,” she goes into the soprano range. Outside of some production elements numbing her articulation for a few lines on a couple of songs, almost every line on Lights Out may be clearly heard by Michaelson and her guest vocalists (all of her guest vocalists make their words perfectly comprehensible).

Thematically, Lights Out is a diverse album. Songs from Ingrid Michaelson tend to be focused on interpersonal relationships and some of them are particularly brilliant. Indeed, Michaelson has a rare talent for exploring concepts uncommon in modern pop music. The longing one has to be memorable, for example, is articulated on “Stick.” When Michaelson sings “Long long time ago / You and I put on a show / Then we ran it in the ground / You said it's not enough / Don't want a broken love / You were nowhere to be found / Even after something's gotta hold on / Did any of me stick at all? . . . There's a part of you that stays with me / Someone else gets to know / Did any of me stick at all?” (“Stick”), anyone who has had a failed relationship where they grew from the experience can relate to the lines!

Michaelson is an impressive poet. With lines like “Oh, let me wear your overcoat, my bones are super chill and all the ponies have gone home / Oh, walking through Manhattan with the ache from last night’s smile still smarting up from my toes / Here we go, dancing on our own, inside this house that we have never known, / Here we go, going in alone into the dark and wonderful unknown, let us go, let us go / Oh, we make bread on Sundays and the little ones are climbing up the walls, up the walls / Oh, nothing lasts forever but the sound of love astounds me every time that it calls” (“Wonderful Unknown”), Ingrid Michaelson continues her trend as one of America’s premier singer-songwriters.

Lights Out does not have any musical story-songs, which defined Michaelson’s early career (and illustrated her roots in folk music), but the album still illustrates the raw talent of Ingrid Michaelson while displaying some real growth in her abilities. This is one of the best albums of 2014 and the current peak for the talented Ingrid Michaelson.

The best song is “Wonderful Unknown,” the weak link is “Ready To Lose,” which is not a bad song at all.

For other works by Ingrid Michaelson, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Girls And Boys
Human Again


Check out how this album stacks up against others I have reviewed by visiting my Music Review Index Page where the albums and singles are organized from best to worst!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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