Review Summary: I want my money back, Peyton.
By my reckoning, Peyton Elizabeth Sawyer used to be one of television's coolest ever characters. For the benefit of anybody unfamiliar with teenage drama One Tree Hill, P. Sawyer started season one as a stunning, pseudo-emo rock chick, vehement in her defence of art and poetry and everything ever-so-slightly alternative. She had a fling with Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz, her record collection spanned a whole wall of her bedroom, and she listened to some damn good music to boot. And then midway through the show's fifth season she launched her own record label, equipped with the rock-solid belief that music is capable of changing the world and should not be exploited or used to make money. You can probably see where this is going already. Peyton Sawyer used to listen to The Clash, Jack's Mannequin and Black Sabbath, so when her character signed Kate Voegele's character Mia Catalano the first reaction was one of huge curiosity. It's fair to say I would now appreciate an apology, since I hold in my hand one of the most manufactured, commercial records I have heard in my entire life.
Part of the problem with A Fine Mess
is that it will be marketed – largely to people who know no better – as brilliant, edgy, raw pop music, and that obviously couldn't be further from the truth. Even the album cover, with its scrawled text, smacks of pretense. But really, you don't have to look so carefully; all you have to do is start the album spinning. The first line that hits Voegele's lips on Inside Out
is the brilliantly telling, “In fairness, I was an easy sell.” And she is; her sweet vocals have a slight twang about them and a youthful feel that makes most of what she sings sound genuine. But, obviously, that's not the only reason she's easy to sell – her commercial potential lies primarily in the fact that almost nothing here has any sort of rough edge. Everything is structured with verses and louder, faux-inspirational choruses that are repeated enough times to be infectious but carry not enough weight to actually move the listener. The production is overly smooth and there are very few moments that make you sit up and take notice.
As is to be expected, the vast majority of the music is led by electro-acoustic guitars or piano, but it never really makes an impression. Most of the time this is because it's mixed poorly, and becomes an entirely inoffensive, vaguely melodic instrumental backdrop. Where the instruments find themselves distinct, it makes for a much more invigorating listen; Talkin' Smooth
, a track which tries (and almost succeeds) to throw a bit of country influence into the mix, is one of the more memorable on offer, not really because it's the best written song, but simply because there's more than a vocal melody to remember. There are violins and other subtle uses of orchestral sounds but they never really interfere or add anything beyond atmosphere.
The focus, then, is on Voegele – her voice, and her lyrics – and while she's certainly no Oberst or Gibbard, the girl can sing and her songwriting generally stays the right side of the line between cheesy and relatable. Standout Manhattan From The Sky
is a particularly sweet track about the way getting to know somebody reveals their complexities, including the very cool hook line, 'I wanna come down and walk around your mind.' Granted, there are moments here (like closer Lift Me Up
) which are borderline cringeworthy in lyrical terms, and others which are simply unaffecting, but there's a degree of sincerity behind the more generic lines that keeps them on their feet. Voegele sounds like a slightly older Taylor Swift, although musically the two acts have not very much in common. Most of the tracks on A Fine Mess are mid-tempo, middle-of-the-road and probably make for very pleasant background music, and if you're looking for something melodic to put on that takes no effort at all, this is a reasonable effort.
If One Tree Hill didn't exist as her own personal advertising slot, the chances are that nobody would buy this album. That doesn't make it terrible, it just makes it unspectacular, and simply not enough in a genre so full of competent musicians and vocalists. Reviewing a record like this is occasionally tricky because there's really very little variation. This is an album full of moments that make you go 'awwwh', and which indicate Voegele has definite talent, but she really needs to do something different, because despite her ability to pen a good pop song, she's going to blend into the crowds of nameless faces that can do the same. Commercial and manufactured, yes, but A Fine Mess is far from the worst thing ever recorded. It just never tries to be the best, either.