Produced by boyfriend Stephan Jenkins (he of Third Eye Blind fame), Vanessa Carlton’s latest album, “Harmonium,” doesn’t necessarily fall into the category of sophomore slump, but it doesn’t seem to be a hit either.
Overall, the album seems to rehash the template laid down on Carlton’s debut, “Be Not Nobody.” Instead of moving forward and away from the pop culture she was associated with, Carlton seems happy to tread water in a place she never wanted to be (some tracks on the debut channeled Tori Amos or Fiona Apple and Carlton even offered up a rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black”).
The sad part is that Carlton always seemed to be better than the teen singer/songwriter category she was lumped into (along with Michelle Branch and Avril Lavigne). Carlton is a great piano player, a fine composer and has a great, distinct voice. Even though Carlton has a great, almost husky at times (in a good way) voice when performing live, it’s almost as if her voice was mixed to sound younger on “Harmonium.”
And while this new offering tries to channel (the success?) of its predecessor, it fails on some levels to truly capture the magic. The album’s lead-off single, “White Houses,” is the only song to almost recapture the young enthusiasm of Carlton’s mega-hit “A Thousand Miles.”
Musically speaking, the composition on the tracks at least seems much more mature, especially on a track like “Annie,” which is probably the best song on the album. You can shut your eyes and just imagine Carlton’s fingers frantically dancing along the keys throughout the track.
“San Francisco” is another stand out track. The lyrics are interesting to listen to and there’s a really interesting backbeat to the track that grabs you and pulls you deep into the song (like reading a good book and not being able to put it down).
Lyrically, Carlton has definitely matured from her first outing, most probably due to age though she does name-drop Carole King and Stevie Nicks in the liner notes (for the record, I can’t actually find any note indicating whether Carlton wrote the songs alone, with someone, or at all — except for the hidden track “The Wreckage”). And sadly, there’s no track that lives up to the passion of “Be Not Nobody’s” closer “Twilight” (though Carlton gives it a good try with “She Flows” which features great cello work).
The added strings add a nice, soothing dimension to the slower tracks and beef up the faster songs nicely. In fact, the orchestration is the perfect compliment to Carlton’s brand of music, adding depth without making things seem overblown. (Usually, I prefer a more stripped down approach, but in this case it works.)
In the end, it’s hard to find something bad to say about “Harmonium” (except for the poor trying-too-hard-to-be-hip chorus on “Private Radio”), it’s just that it seems that Carlton has much more to offer.