erasing clouds

The Year in 5 Reviews: Pop Go the Women

Vanessa Carlton, Charlotte Martin, Avril Lavigne, Katy Rose, Ashlee Simpson

Reviews by Matthew Webber

When I was 13, I never would have believed it: Tapestry gets more spins now than Van Halen II.

Years removed from playing competitive sports, speeding in my parents’ station wagon, and being blissfully unaware of body wash, tweezers, and hair product, I’m more in touch with my feminine side than ever, which means I’m listening to more music by women.

I’m also more in touch with the sides of me that aren’t so serious, which means I’m listening to a lot more pop.

Call me sensitive, call me a metrosexual, but please don’t call me old. I haven’t outgrown music: the listening, buying, memorizing, reading, obsessing, and debating of music. I’ve just outgrown rocking out. The pop and adult-contemporary presets in my car get tapped a little more often, while the rock station often gets just a cursory listen. Although every station plays their own same five songs, at least the pop and AC stations haven’t been playing the same five songs since 1979.

Somehow, lyrical sexual harassment and masturbatory guitar solos don’t inspire me anymore, except maybe to drum on the steering wheel or bench press an additional weight. When I’m driving and flipping through the channels, or even just preparing a mid-afternoon bowl of cereal, what I want to listen to is something I can hum. I’m finding this in pop music, and by this I mean stuff that’s popular. Often, I find it with women.

There’s something about a woman’s voice that gets me every time. Women, also, usually have prettier melodies than men, and melodies, as I’ve learned in my old age, are what attract me to songs – even if the singers of these melodies are younger than I am.

Although I don’t feel the earth move when I listen to the following CDs, they’re not so far away from taking me home again. In moments, they are beautiful. (So dance the night away.)

They’re not – by a longshot – the top five of the year, and they’re not even a representative five for all of the other music I listened to in 2004, although they were a refreshing break from Eminem’s vomiting sound effects. They’re fun, though, these five female pop CDs, which is something I can’t say about a few of what I really do believe will be the greatest albums to come out of last year (Bjork, Elliott Smith, and Rufus Wainwright, in particular).

And none of them are made by actresses-turned-singers. So there.

Vanessa Carlton, Harmonium (A&M)

Carlton, the former piano student and ballerina, is far from Alicia Keys; she’s not even as soulful as Sarah McLachlan. But on the many Harmonium tracks that don’t sound like piano recitals, you can actually hear the groove of a now-grownup woman. Of course, anything compared to Carlton’s break-though hit, “A Thousand Miles,” would sound darker, but Carlton’s attempt to write the deeper, more mature sophomore album that every fan and critic demands nowadays really inspired a more profound work.

Whether autobiographical or fictional, the leadoff track and single, “White Houses,” is the type of personal poetry that Tori Amos used to conjure from fairy dust. It’s specific and universal, sometimes in the same line, with images – the “pretty-eyed boys girls die to trust,” “the smell of gasoline [in] his car’s cracked leather seat,” and the “rush of blood” that accompanies the encounter – among the most vivid, bittersweet, and plaintively sung by a post-teen female pop star since those in Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn.”

Elsewhere, Carlton sings about places (“San Francisco,” where she resides), people (“Annie,” a sick, dying fan), and music itself (“Private Radio”), all in that sexy, strong coo of hers that has successfully wooed not only myself but Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins, the boyfriend who produced the album to make it sound like mid-‘90s rock.

And that’s my biggest problem with Carlton. Not that’s she dating Jenkins, but that she – or someone else at her label who fears subtleties could bar Carlton from TRL – insists on filling what should be the quiet spaces in all of her songs with gloopy, redundant orchestral flourishes that overpower her simple melodies.

I think I could develop quite the crush on Carlton if I ever were to see her live, alone at the piano, preferably in some smoky bar or coffeehouse where her only backing musicians were the servers and patrons clinking their glasses or mugs. But so far, on her records, the second-chair violinist attracts more attention. Harmonium is so big and shiny, there’s even room for Pharrel Williams to sing on a track, perhaps because Johnny Rzeznik was unavailable.

If Carlton wants production, I’d suggest she listen to something like Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, not necessarily for the woodwinds, but just for something that sounds different from Michelle Branch.

Charlotte Martin, On Your Shore (RCA)

I did see Charlotte Martin live, alone at her piano in a smoky bar, and I did develop a silly little crush. (Those New York rock critics can keep their Karen O. I’ll take the demure, piano-playing songstress over the screaming, beer-bottle-fellating rock chick every time. [I mean, look at me, and you’ll know why. I’m like the kid in Almost Famous.]) I’m not shallow enough where physical appearance alone makes an artist attractive, or else I’d be more forgiving of Kelly Clarkson’s first batch of singles. But Martin’s powerhouse voice (especially from someone so tiny), the candlelit stage, and her nervous demeanor that quickly gave way to a confidence in how good her songs were meant I couldn’t take my eyes off of her, except to turn and thank the two friends who dragged me to the show.

The Britneys of the world could learn a lot about being sexy from the Martins – it’s not about how hard you try, it just is, if you have it. It also helps if you have Martin’s voice: classically trained (or so the story goes), rich with vibrato, not really needing the reverb in the microphone. When she sang the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” she owned it. Call me a heretic: Hers that night was the song’s definitive performance.

I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen this debut artist on VH1 yet.

Her own compositions were the rare ones by a previously unfamiliar artist that demanded I purchase an overpriced copy of the album on which they appear from the merch table so I could listen to them again on the ride home. The title track, “Your Armor,” “Every Time It Rains,” and “Beautiful Life” were songs I heard once and then instantly remembered.

Yet they actually disappointed me, for the same reason Carlton’s recorded songs disappoint me. They’re produced for VH1, erased of their rawness and much of their power, their spaces glossed over and smothered with noise. It’s pretty noise, sure, but less pretty than Martin’s silences, which are pregnant with a harmony the overproduction bludgeons.

I claim to love the radio stuff, and I keep buying these albums, so I’m bringing this on myself, and what am I complaining about? I do like Carlton and Martin, and play me a string section on a Beatles record and I’ll probably rave it’s perfect – but there’s something misplaced about the production on these records, like, it seems better suited for an inferior artist, a writer who needs a lot of stuff going on musically to distract you from the fact her songs are weak – whereas Carlton and Martin would benefit much more from grace notes than from an entire grace philharmonic, or maybe they just need a producer as brilliant as George Martin – whom Ken Andrews and Martin herself are not.

Yet, whenever I listen to On Your Shore, and as I listen to it now as I type this, I dwell instead on that voice and those songs. I think of Tori Amos, who obviously influenced Martin, with her similar way of pounding the piano keys and elongating her vowels, although Martin’s lyrics are earthquakes more straightforward. All of this combines to make On the Shore about the fourth-best Amos album, which makes it better than that of just about any female artist who actually does get played on the radio.

Avril Lavigne, Under My Skin (Arista)

Avril Lavigne gets played on the radio. A lot. Even though I’m a 25-year-old male, I don’t mind this. Lavigne has grown on me to the point she’s no longer a guilty pleasure, and I’m no longer an apologist. I’m just a fan of her music, plain and simple, with the key phrase being “her music,” which wasn’t the case before. When someone you previously accused of being a puppet releases a sophomore album without the help of the puppeteers behind her debut, it doesn’t usually get better. It doesn’t usually get this good.

No matter what else I’ve written or spoken about Lavigne before, and much of it was disparaging, I can’t escape the truth I listened to her album more than any other for about a two-month period after I bought it. I stopped caring about my street cred long ago, but my love of this album still shocked me. I am not supposed to like this. I am not her target audience. But I loved this album as much as her teenage fans did, if not more so. In my case, the title was apt.

Taken for what it is, a pop record, not a rock or heavens forbid a punk record, Under My Skin is one of the most successful releases of 2004 in any genre, doing exactly what it was supposed to do: be insanely catchy while imitatively grungy, with guitars jingle-jangling and Lavigne spitting out her inspired faux attitude. This record will not save lives. These lyrics will not be taught in a high school poetry class.

But its marriage of sunshine and doom – happy, happy melodies; angry, angry chords – is perfect for the idealized teenage state that many people seek in art. Seriously, why else would 30-something rock critics go to so many dumb garage rock shows? Liking Lavigne isn’t really that different from liking Jet, except one of them has way better hygiene and songs. Both appeal to the kid in their grown-up fans.

Listening to this record is like watching the best teen comedies; there are so many works in each genre that talk down to their consumers or belittle the experience by reducing it to its most partying or piteous extremes, that when something comes along that examines both perspectives fairly, championing a lifestyle right smack in the middle, it seems like a revelation, no matter how derivative it is. Fast Times at Ridgemont High might only be a good movie when compared to, oh, say, Orange County, but doesn’t that make it a good movie, at least within its own genre and taken on its own merits? It wouldn’t be fair to compare it to A Clockwork Orange.

So I wouldn’t compare Lavigne to Fiona Apple. Nor would I compare her to fellow Canadian songstress Joni Mitchell, when a comparison to fellow Canadian songstress Alanis Morissette is clearly more apt. Morissette set the template for all the angsty, female, post-teen pop tarts who followed, with their requisite guitar drones belying their saccharine melodies, and I dare you to compare Lavigne to anyone else in the genre. Fefe Dobson? Lillix? Katy Rose? Ashlee Simpson? Kelly Clarkson when she’s pretending to like metal?

Lavigne’s songs, co-written this time with the likes of Chantal Kreviazuk, Marvelous 3’s Butch Walker, Our Lady Peace’s Raine Maida, and Evanescence’s Ben Moody, are superior in spite of – and thus because of – their formula. Her songs actually crescendo, her bridges really soar, and if they’re anthemic, which they are, it’s all good, because they’re damn-near perfect pop/rock tunes, doing what almost-perfect pop/rock tunes do, with the bonus of a cute little sneer in the voice, plus more personality than the girl who sang “Complicated.”

Please, continue to slag Lavigne all you want for being a hypocrite. “She’s not a punk.” “She doesn’t write her own songs.” It’s your right.

But pop music, one should realize, like all of, say, movie-making, is a medium of collaboration. When one work of art produced by the same person is this consistently good as a previous work and this, well, consistent, despite or because of her various co-conspirators, it’s successful enough I don’t care who originated it – although I suspect the author probably had something to do with it. Think Lennon/McCartney, John/Taupin, or even Bowie/Pop. Other than Paul McCartney, who really cares who wrote what? Under My Skin is too well-crafted for Lavigne to have had no control in its making. Just as Iggy Pop made “Lust for Life” his, so does Lavigne own a song (“Nobody’s Home”) that once would have belonged to Evanescence’s Amy Lee.

The more she speaks out against Ashlee Simpson and lip syncing, the more she asserts her still-developing personality. It’s nascent on the record, but it’s there if you want to find it.

Perhaps best of all, her lyrics don’t pander to the greatest fears of her listeners’ parents. In “Don’t Tell Me,” she even tells a boyfriend she’s gonna kick his ass for going too far sexually. If I ever have a daughter, I’d much rather she hear such a mild curse word coming out of one of her peers’ mouths than some double entendre about milkshakes. (Which is exactly why last year’s Kelis hit was so awesome, but I digress.)

And that moment near the end of “My Happy Ending” when every instrument chimes together as one percussive beat before fading into an even louder beat of silence? Rad.

Of course, I realize I have no credibility.

Katy Rose, Because I Can (V2)

Katy Rose should be, like, a billionaire. As Avril Lavigne and Ashlee Simpson are coupling with Sum 41 stars and starring in spin-off reality TV shows, Rose is co-writing should-be pop hits as a teenager and singing with a certain bratty know-it-all panache even though she’s barely old enough to drive JoJo to the mall. Nose ring? Check. Lyrics in her debut and leadoff single “Overdrive” about Jayne Mansfield’s car, “crap new-age philosophy,” and girls who come to California “to find a scene, but end up girls on methadrine, naked on the TV screen”? Check plus.

Rose’s whole shtick is the pretty, jaded daddy’s girl, the kind of girl who scares me when she’s walking in the mall, because of how snidely she could mock my jeans or shoes. She’s the character Lavigne played in the “Complicated” video, and a little like Lavigne herself just two years ago. She’s kind of like an idol for Lavigne fans’ little sisters.

And she’s exactly like someone with a ticket for the Big Time: the cute, pouty lips of Humbert Humbert’s nightmares; the spots in commercials and one key scene in the Best Teen Movie Ever, Mean Girls (the mean girls play Rose’s music and ask Lindsay Lohan’s character if she’s even heard the song); a slot on the Girlz Garage tour with Liz Phair of all people; and a great second video shot in artsy black and white, with Rose playing guitar and leading a band to prove she’s an authentic Artist – and no one cares. No one knows who she is. Skye Sweetnam stole her moment.

The rest of Rose’s album, Because I Can, is exactly what you’d expect. It sounds like Lavigne being told what Lavigne sounds like. It sounds like Lavigne’s debut. There’s nothing as great as the “oh” in “I’m cherry cola,” a treat of a line in a hit that never was, as even the re-edited “Overdrive” video got her nowhere. She also tells us “I’m independence,” a line I can’t decide is either the most ironic of the year or the most jaw-droppingly prescient. With a delivery like this, Rose should be huge. Even if her other songs are good instead of great. Even if sometimes they’re merely decent. There has certainly been worse music to sell eight million copies. (Usher, put your shirt back on, I’m talking to you.)

Rose is too Lavigne-like to have made so little impact. Or: Is Rose too-Lavigne like to have made any impact?

Either way, having Jessica Simpson as a big sister could have helped.

Ashlee Simpson, Autobiography (Geffen)

Ashlee, just don’t do it. Don’t perform in public again. Don’t lip sync over the wrong backing track. Don’t squeal off-key in front of thousands of hostile football fans.

Do stay in the studio with your time-tested, battle-worn songsmiths. Keep making that sexy, girlish squeak you do on record knowing you’ll never be able to replicate it live, at least not without coughing up your uvula in the process.

Stop naming albums Autobiography like we care about your feelings. Hell, stop writing songs. You’re so good at being processed; just embrace the illusion. You’re a reality-TV star being micromanaged by your father. You’re Jessica’s lil’ sis, remember? I know it must have sucked and all growing up in her “Shadow,” but don’t expect sympathy from an otherwise tolerable song, BECAUSE SHE IS THE REASON ANYONE KNOWS WHO YOU ARE.

Look: Your album’s not that bad. In fact, it’s actually kinda good. Of course, it could be any other girl in the world singing those tracks, which is why America will forgive you for sucking so badly live. What you’re doing is neither different nor wrong from what (fill in the blank) did back in (choose a year at random). She didn’t get her recording contract because she sings like your older sister. In fact, that’s a good thing; your sister overdo-o-o-es every vowel. A) Tiffany, B) Olivia Newton-John, or C) Everybody in the Above Reviews got to make a record because she was cute and lucky. So are you! Great!

Let your voice be a conduit for salable pop tunes. Embrace being the face that launched a thousand music-publishing careers. If you cooperate, I promise I will, too, telling all the skeptics, or at least the ones who don’t laugh at me, that your music isn’t horrible, really. Like so much else in this Year in Review, it does what it’s supposed to do. And it does this much better than your sister’s music, honest, thanks to cleverer producers and a clearer target audience.

But you’re bummed, right? The bad people are making fun of you? I know you’re trying to find yourself, and I know you think this is what makes some people (me) like some singers (Avril Lavigne), but I think you need to find yourself far, far away from a stage. I know you’re only trying to prove yourself. But performing live only enhances your credibility if you’re not a total embarrassment. The only thing you’re proving is the people who hate you correct. Thanks to your persistence, you’ve proved without a doubt you can’t sing.

So, forget about “authenticity.” You can’t be authentic through nepotism and MTV editing. In fact, you can’t be authentic: YOUR MUSIC CAREER WAS MADE FOR TV. And I am not judging you. Your very inauthenticity is why you are interesting at all. At once, you embody everything that’s currently right (songcraft) and wrong (image) about pop music. So don’t go ruining things by, I don’t know, taking singing lessons.

Everyone who bashes you doesn’t understand. Either they’re bashing your peers also and they’re prejudiced against teenage girls, or they’re holding you to a different standard than your peers, which makes them hypocrites. As my dirty, Justin Timberlake, says, “Sometimes people just destined, destined to do what they do, and that’s what it is, now everybody dance,” and I think that just about sums you up.

Take Courtney Love’s advice: Fake it so real you are beyond fake.

Or go ahead and make me a hypocrite with your follow-up album. After all, in a year I never could have foreseen in my cock-rocking years, Avril Lavigne did.

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