It always strikes me as amusing to hear a music group or artist take flack due to a certain weakness in their talent, such as Kurt Cobain, noted for his lack of awesome guitar skills, or Conor Oberst, who is frequently the target of criticism for his often less than appealing singing voice. I mean, of course I don’t want to have to sit through an entire album whose instruments sound like rusty iron bars scraping against a chalk board, complimented with singing reminiscent of an old cat getting violated by a power drill, but I also don’t want to limit myself to listening to only music whose composers are all exorbitantly talented, because, as many people seem to forget, there’s more to music than just ability. Ability means jack if it’s not constructed right, and likewise, faults can be circumvented with good songwriting, sometimes even to an extent forging them as the highlight of the music itself.
So, with this said, there’s Vanessa Carlton. Her debut album, Be Not Nobody, takes great heed to the constructional aspect of music, and as such is the case with many great songwriters, this technique is pulled off quite well given what she has to work with, and after listening to a song or two off of her album, it becomes apparent that she has her work cut out for her. While not terrible by any means, her voice has a certain tinge to it that doesn’t allow it to be wonderful either. And especially so in pop, a genre whose major artists are all loaded with amazingly powerful and emotive voices. Vanessa’s voice has a very girly tone to it, which inevitably causes her to sound very whiney and often times irritating. Couple this with an inability to sustain powerful notes for very long periods of time without causing a tonal catastrophe, and you have one fairly displeasing facet of Vanessa Carlton.
But, as I’ve mentioned, this is just one facet of Vanessa Carlton. In striking contrast, Vanessa is an awesome pianist. Listening to Be Not Nobody, one can hear the various, contrasting styles administered by Vanessa. Her playing jumps as needed from song to song, being grand and environmental at one point, and then moving on to a simple vehicle for the rest of music to carry off with. Her playing, depending on the necessity of the song, can be decisive, ambiguous, atmospheric, or just plain simple and catchy. But all the while, on Be Not Nobody, Vanessa’s playing retains a bit of a surreal element, giving the album a very dreamy flow all the way throughout.
With both weakness and strength noted, Vanessa utilizes her greatest skill, and combines both. The product is rather interesting, resulting in no clearly defined dominance in either her singing or her playing, settling more for a nice balance between the two. Her voice is quite reserved throughout, leaving the piano to take more leverage at points where her voice may not have been as successful. One can easily see this trade off on the third single of the album, “Pretty Baby”, which for the most part remains quite a slow song, until its midsection, where Vanessa’s voice takes more initiative, only to be taken back by the piano, showing her ability to admit defeat in one area, and trading off for a strength in another. But this is not always the case with Be Not Nobody. A quite different approach is used later on in the song “Wanted”, a simple song, consisting of only Vanessa’s voice and the piano. Starting with a very convicting, repeating piece on the piano, her voice comes in, and the piano falls back a bit, acting only as a vehicle to her voice. What’s quite interesting about “Wanted” is that, much unlike “Pretty Baby”, her voice is the main instrument, and as she continuously uses it, gaining strength all the while, her most major fault is ultimately revealed. But, alas, even as her voice goes awry at the most pivotal point of the song, and really, the last truly exciting part of Be Not Nobody, it still works, and after a few listens, it seems all but appropriate, especially when followed by “Twilight”, the slow, soft spoken, consummation of the album, devoid of much piano at all, and very much filled with Vanessa giving some very good vocals over top of a very dreamy and surreal orchestrated arrangement.
Aside from the couple of tracks that are very one-sided in respect to Vanessa’s singing or playing, Be Not Nobody also has a very generous mix of songs with both
instruments complementing each other, such as in “A Thousand Miles”, Vanessa’s first and to date most successful single, parodied in cinema as being the epitome of rich, stuffy, white culture. With the latter acknowledgement aside, it’s very clear as to why “A Thousand Miles” is Vanessa’s most successful single. The music, simple, yet concomitantly quite complex, is very rich in flavor, with many facts all tied seamlessly together. Vanessa also gives one of her best vocal performances on the album on “A Thousand Miles”, though all the while remaining mostly reserved with her singing.
As much of the album goes, Vanessa and her piano both work side by side, delivering overall well thought out songs, all of which flow very nicely with each other, though at some points there is a bit of a rough transition of mood. Vanessa’s styles jump around a bit, ranging from grand, orchestrated pop ballads, such as “Ordinary Day”, to “Unsung”, which has the feel of country all about it while still retaining Vanessa’s own style of pop, and then moving on to some very depressing and sinister sounding songs, like “Rinse” and “Paradise”. Throughout this mid section, Be Not Nobody acquires a very dark and gloomy feel to it, subsequently resulting in slow, somber ballads that can occasionally feel as though they drag on too long. After “Paradise”, however, the album picks up greatly, with “Prince”, which starts out much more upbeat than the previous few songs, and continuing with “Paint It Black”, yet another dab in an angry Vanessa, yet this time with more feeling and variety. “Paint It Black” digs deeper into a rock oriented sound more so than any other track previously shown. And, keeping up with the mysticism of Be Not Nobody, “Paint It Black” has some very Middle Eastern sounding music to it, which adds nicely to the mix, taking an otherwise generically good song into a great song.
Now while Vanessa Carlton’s music may be a mixture between rock and pop, fans of the mainstream collection of either genre may find this album a bit hard to fathom as it’s mixed and worked to the point that’s it becomes a bit unrecognizable in either respects. And while this album may have spawned a very successful single, the rest of the songs on the album, when listened to individually, don’t work quite as well as they do in their proper context. Simply put, Be Not Nobody is an album, not a collection of singles, and thus, it works much better taken all at once than pieced individually.
Overall, Be Not Nobody is a very solid album and a very good debut for the up-and-coming star to establish herself as an artist who, while recognizing her faults, can overcome them with other aspects of her talent. Her faults are played out very well, sometimes taking the lead, other times falling back and allowing other strengths to take over, while still other times working simultaneously to create the best results.
I give this album a 3.9 out of 5 rating.