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Three Graces Part 3 – Vanessa Carlton

May 3, 2010

Courtesy of Flickr via Wikimedia Commons

The first ten times I heard Vanessa Carlton I was not impressed. It was at the gym or surfing my car radio. She was clearly worked up about whatever it was she was singing about but expressed it with a voice that had a highschooler’s affectation. The kind of affectation that could get annoying, and in fact soon enough did.

But then, as this song repeated (it was obviously a major hit) with me as captive audience, I gave in and listened. Not bad piano playing, a little like Billy Joel on Piano man, but come to think of it her voice wasn’t nearly as annoying as anything sung by that pompous drug addled fool. And there was a very meaty string section, something I’m a sure sucker for.

Years passed and the song was no longer a hit. One day at the gym I heard a new thing, “Hands on Me.”  It grabbed me right away. I jotted down a few lines in my notebook, went home and googled. Hard to believe, but that was the same whiny girl that sang “A Thousand Miles.” She still had a bit of edge on her voice, but it was no longer annoying. And the song was very good.  I went to the album, Heroes, on itunes and carefully auditioned each cut – I’d been burned a few times, downloading albums because of one good song that turned out to be the only good song on the record. Was I being scammed again? These songs all sounded good.

I bought the thing, and indeed they were.  And soon I favored other songs over “Hands on Me.”  Like cut five, hidden right in the middle of the record. “The One.”  The chorus is a duet sung with Stevie Nicks. Stevie sings below Vanessa, arguing about as fine an argument for the pop Alto as I’ve heard. The song is a gem of a pop song.  That duet sings the hook, riding over a descending chord progression that reminds me of Dylan classics like “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” One of the verses is cut short, asymmetrical, reminding us that only God is perfect.  The arrangement serves the tune, giving ancient pop song tricks their renaissance due – the band drops out, along with Stevie, for a solo last chorus, then Stevie joins her, like a friend consoling, for an old-school repeated last line, three times is the charm. The end of that song made me do something I haven’t done since the heyday of the Beatles and Beach Boys…or, well, Joni Mitchell.  I kept hitting the play button again and again until some puritanical vestige made me stop. Too much fun.

It’s not obvious on first hearing Heroes that Vanessa is breaking big new ground like her predecessors.  The innovation is in the arrangements, which evoke a sense of development rare in pop music and also mix in a big bag of top shelf Ear Candy. The melodies wouldn’t have seemed innovative 40 years ago, but do now in the light of the long paucity of great ones we’ve suffered.

Like Joni before her in “Clouds” and “The Circle Game,” Vanessa shows a remarkable understanding for impermanence for someone still in their 20’s. She ends the album with:

Cradling stones hold fire bright

As we watch the glow of the morning light

Someday our bones here they will lie, and so we sing…

Let’s make this our story,

Let’s live in the glory

Time, it fades away,

Precious as a song

Cause someday we’ll be gone

It’s no accident that these three graces were steeped in Classical music from a young age.

I hope that Vanessa Carlton doesn’t also lose me, because I need music like that, and it’s very rare.  It worries me that her third album, her greatest, sold less than the second, which sold less than the first.  I have a feeling that the bean-counting record business in their shortsightedness won’t let her make another.  Hope I’m wrong.

  1. Christian permalink

    this was one of the most refreshing reviews I’ve seen of this album. Heroes & Thieves is by far my favorite album of all time, thank you for your honest opinion and open mind : )

    • I confess (why confess? I’m no Catholic!) it’s been my favorite for a while too…
      when I find myself going for it on my ipod I hesitate, no I want to save that, the way you save the whipped cream on the dessert for last.

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