Remember the pop princess who had a hit with the songs "A Thousand Miles," "Ordinary Day," and "Pretty Baby"? Well, this is her, except more mature, more gothic, and just plain better.
Vanessa Carlton is one of the few artists today who can sell modestly well without the help of a hit single. She released Harmonium in 2004 to almost no airplay (for the single "White Houses") and huge fan support. The album has sold around 200,000 copies, which would be a huge deal for any indie label. Poor Vanessa was the victim of her record label's stupidity, but remains to be a favorite to all of her fans.
The album starts off with the only single, "White Houses" (4/5). This song is a standard pop single, one that makes you want to buy the cd. The rest of the cd is the opposite, but anyway, it starts out with a basic piano riff, if you can call it that, that escalates into a powerful chorus that eventually fades off. Vanessa has mastered the technique of using her piano as part of the melody and the harmony of the song; she uses several lines of music similar to what a bass guitar would play if there was one. "White Houses" continues on with some relatively quiet playing by Lindsay Buckingham, and then it ends. Now we get into the real music.
Next comes "Who to Say" (3/5) and "Annie" (5/5). "Who's to Say" is pretty much like "White Houses", except in a ballad-y version, so I'm not going to bother reviewing that song, but "Annie" is totally different. "Annie" is pretty much a song about some dying girl that Vanessa has relations to; it's one of the most emotional songs on the disc, just because of her vocals - they reflect her emotions of sorrow and longing very well, without overdoing it.
"San Francisco" (4/5) is a homecoming song set in...well, San Francisco. "Love is dancing on my finger / you got to the heart of the matter and lingered." This is one of Vanessa's more personal song, and contains some of her most interesting orchestral arrangements.
The next song, "Afterglow" (2/5) is perhaps the only boring song on this disc. It's a piano ballad with an occasional outburst of strings, covered softly by Vanessa's voice, but it lulls you to sleep. It gets boring, even though it's one of the shortest songs on Harmonium. But do not fear, my child, Vanessa saved the best for last.
"Private Radio" (5/5) was originally going to be released as the first single off of the album, but alas Vanessa's evil label executives denied the world this priveledge. This song is simply amazing, and could have saved her album from bombing like it did. "Private Radio" sucessfully layers many digital sound effects through Vanessa's voice and piano skills. It's one of the more upbeat songs on the album, giving us a break from the ballads "Who's to Say" and "Afterglow".
Many artists use interesting techniques with vocal sounds in their music, and Vanessa manages to accomplish this at the beginning of "Half a Week Before the Winter" (5/5). It starts off with the title line, but it sounds like the song is going to be in a minor key until she says "winter". From then, the song advances into a chilling performance that engulfs you in it's simplistic brilliance.
"C'est la Vie," (5/5) the often used french phrase, is an interesting display of Vanessa's melodic skills - she uses a catchy and successful rhodes riff to set the style for the rest of the song - sheer depression. "C'est la Vie" possibly best shows Vanessa's skills at creating catchy riffs and melodies; and she does it often.
Moving along. "Papa" (5/5) is one of the two songs on "Harmonium" to be nothing but Vanessa's vocals and piano playing. Her rhythm and her playing style create a jazzy effect that enlightens the otherwise dark melody. This creates a weird effect, because her lyrics are rather depressing. "I should have known by the ice in his eye / but you warmed me up with your so sweet demise / nestled in your calculated moonshine".
The last non-bonus track on the album, "She Floats" (3/5) is a ballad pierced by literal screams that are a bit surprising if you're listening to the disc for the first time. The slow, cautious piano somewhat enhances Vanessa's use of voice timbre; this is one of the best vocal performances on the album. But the track's sheer length and the fact that it is a ballad takes away from this; it makes the song rather boring after a few minutes.
Finally, we come to the bonus song that is good enough to be a normal one; "The Wreckage" (5/5) is a suicidal piano-only at times ballad, at times fast, song. The piano effectively transfers moods as Vanessa's voice and lyrics do. "Speeding / Into the horizon / Dreaming of the sirens / Wishing for her broken glass on the highway / It could be so easy" is layered with a slow piano part, and then as her voice crescendoes, so does the emotion in the lyrics. "Flying / Flying in slow motion / Wind through my hair / And ripping through the scene thatís made of the wreckage / It is my secret."
This album contains some of the best-made music I've ever heard. And if you don't feel like listening to it, good for you, because you're missing out.