Review Summary: Down the rabbit hole once more.
A Vanessa Carlton Christmas-themed EP doesn’t sound like a very exciting prospect, does it? But unlike the majority of the other excessively vanilla female singer-songwriter acts currently strewn all over the Billboard
Hot 100, Carlton has at least demonstrated some artistic initiative and a rare desire for self-reinvention in recent times. Her fourth studio album Rabbits on the Run
, released earlier this year, saw her aim for a sound inspired by – are you ready for this – Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time
and Richard Adams's Watership Down
. While marrying neutron star collisions and fluffy bunny rabbits is as hackneyed a concept as it reads on paper, in deliberately cutting her songs direct to tape and recruiting a tight-knit team of collaborators – renowned record producer Steve Osborne, The Upwelling guitarist Ari Ingber, and My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan among them – Carlton inched herself closer to the kind of thoughtful ornamentation and lush creativity that so often precedes key moments of individual distinction.
But while she still sounds closer to Alanis Morissette than say, Sufjan Stevens, the dreamy and fantastical air of Rabbits on the Run
was still a happy development overall, chiefly because for the first time in over half a decade, Carlton actually sounded sincere. Rabbits on the Run
's follow-up – the rather mundanely titled Hear the Bells
EP – isn’t exactly the next episode in Carlton’s tale of musical growth, but it still gives us something of significant substance to chew over. The brief compendium opens with a reworking of Noël Regney’s and Gloria Shayne Baker’s 1962 Christmas tune “Do You Hear What I Hear”, which is, plainly, a superb decision, as the number’s thoughtful and dreamy tones find themselves jiving perfectly with Carlton’s newfound musical direction. Regney’s desperate plea for peace, originally written amidst the trying times of the Cuban Missile Crisis, is made timeless once again as it nudges right up to a set of simple acoustic swells; it’s unfortunate that the children’s choir makes a slightly-too-precise appearance towards the midsection of the track, giving the entire affair a bit of a perfunctory air.
Elsewhere, Rabbits on the Run
stalwart “Hear the Bells” is given a proper makeover: the song is driven by a pulsating, almost temperamental piano riff, and Carlton herself sounds like she’s in the middle of a séance: “Hear the bells, hear the bells
,” she insists in a sordidly deadpan tone. Her vague Victorian musings about death, witchdoctors, and stomachaches – already so effective and poignant on Rabbits on the Run
– are pulled into their definitive form here on this EP. Unfortunately, the same plaudits simply cannot be granted to the remainder of the EP. Carlton’s cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” is third rate at best, and the acoustic remake of the hugely-overplayed “A Thousand Miles” is not only thoroughly unnecessary, but is also a grim reminder of how soulless Carlton’s pieces can be. To put it very simply: Carlton sounds a lot more convincing when she’s not brandishing her music school chops.
Even though it has been plainly marketed otherwise, the Hear the Bells
EP doesn’t really feel like a Christmas-themed release: it’s too brief to spread much of a festive feel and Carlton honestly comes across more easily as an opportunistic composer seeking to exhibit more of that Rabbits on the Run
sound than a Santa Claus incarnate. But don’t let that deter you, for this small collection of songs just about manages to stay on the right side of acceptable – even if its latter half is too unapologetically piano pop to appeal to auditory voyeurs and tastemakers.