Image © A&M Records 2004
Second albums can often be a problem, but Vanessa Carlton, whose debut Be Not Nobody (review), was a considerable success, seems to have breezed through her first major test and produced an album that advances on its predecessor considerably. Her second album is entitled Harmonium (A & M Records (USA) B0003480-02, 2004).
The good news is that the "classic rock" trappings remain from the first album, in fact every effort seems to have been made to give it a "vinyl" feel, from the "two-sided" rhythm of the album's ten tracks, to the delightfully "live" drum sound and Vanessa's use of vintage keyboard sounds. Fender Rhodes and Mellotron, alongside her trademark piano, remain high in the mix throughout, as do her likeable, quirky vocal contributions. With the excellent help of producer Stephan Jenkins, her song writing has been honed to the extent that the occasional padding on Be Not Nobody has been completely eradicated. Having said that, there remain some strong external influences, not only from Tori Amos, but, particularly on this second album, from the great Ben Folds, whose ear for a quirky melody and poignant lyric Vanessa seems to have inherited. That Carole King's name appears in the credits is also interesting. There is a feeling of maturity on this album that she may well have influenced.
Stabbing piano introduces the charming opening song, "White Houses," with a typically cascading piano line and sweeping orchestra. "Who to say" begins with throbbing percussion and bass, not unlike U2's "With or without you," though the melody is reminiscent of Ben Folds, before building into a shimmering power ballad, with some exquisite backing vocals, a feature of the album as a whole. "Annie" begins with a classical piano figure, before launching into the song proper, a lovely piece of sophisticated pop, which dares to hold its chorus back until 2:00 into its length. "San Francisco," a tribute to Vanessa's new home, trips along nicely, with the orchestra again prominent, even developing a few moments of tension towards the end, resolved when a lone piano, playing the songs main refrain, is interrupted by the re-entry of the band and orchestra. "Afterglow" is possibly the weakest track on the album, a slightly meandering mid-tempo piece, saved by a sweet chorus.
"Side two" of our imaginary LP commences with the triumphant "Private Radio," a piece of exuberant, up-tempo pop, a distinct candidate to be a single. The next three songs seem to come together in a sort of suite, with the instrumentation stripped down, pretty much to piano and drums. The acidic "Half a week before the winter" is built around Vanessa's dramatic piano and a complex drum pattern, while the hypnotic "C'est La Vie" features some percussive Fender Rhodes and a much simpler drums placed high in the mix. "Papa" completes the set memorably with nothing more than piano and vocal. Vanessa's piano figure sounds like Czech composer Janacek, and she achieves a similar level of drama with some powerful playing. The album finishes with the lush, intricate ballad "She Floats," which features some wonderful choral vocals and some imaginative scoring for the orchestra. Bonus track "The Wreckage," with its complex classical piano, is also an unexpected delight.
Despite the obvious influences already mentioned, this is a remarkable second album that exceeds the quality of its predecessor by some considerable margin. There are some minor faults, but as these occur in the name of experimentation they are hard to complain about. That Ron Fair, the president of A & M records has put so much faith in the artistic growth of his charismatic protégée, with her quirky manner and unusual looks is encouraging indeed. It gives those of us who remember the days of the 70s when artists like Vanessa were allowed to grow at their own pace hope for the future.
Her third album could well be a classic, and this isn't far short. Totally engrossing.--Stephen Lambe in Cheltenham and Russ Elliot in New York