- The Washington Times - Monday, November 8, 2004

Vanessa Carlton

Harmonium

A&M; Records

With “Harmonium,” pop-pianist Vanessa Carlton tries to emigrate from Avril Lavigne-land to the more rarefied Tori Amos-land. She enlists her boyfriend, Third Eye Blind frontman Stephan Jenkins, as producer, co-writer and multi-instrumentalist, and the 11 songs that resulted are, if anything, too good.

I don’t mean good like “Yesterday” or even Miss Lavigne’s own “A Thousand Miles,” which had cream-puff lyrics but hooks as memorable as a Swift Boat ad. I mean good as in urbane, carefully arranged and professionally performed.

“Harmonium,” in other words, could’ve used a slice or two of cheese. It momentarily promises cheesiness. I got excited to hear “San Francisco” recycling Bon Jovi’s “Runaway,” but the song’s Velveeta quotient quickly molds over. The set overall never sustains any sense of fun, unpredictability or youthfulness. (Miss Carlton, a small-town Pennsylvanian, is 24.)

There are evocations of imminent death on “Annie” (“A day out from the county I.C.U./There is nothing you can do”) and of a rotten father, or possibly George W. Bush, on “Half a Week Before the Winter” (“He sits behind a desk of mahogany/He whispers dreams into my ear/Though I’ve given him an empire/He delivers me my fear”).

A calculating, icy-eyed boy comes in for a Fiona Apple-lashing on “Papa.” Confessional lyrics become poser’s poetry on “C’est la Vie,” another lashing for one of Mr. Jenkins’ predecessors. “Boy, you swallow truth like honey as you spew your lies upon me.”

Boy, that’s bad.

Contrast that with Alicia Keys, another young female pianist. She’s talented. She knows it. She knows we know it. And yet she’s not above pandering with a few dance-funk numbers that keep the concert piano-powder dry.

Miss Carlton signs off “Harmonium” with the showy, solo-piano turn “The Wreckage.” It’s impressive, all right, but a total mismatch for the singer’s nasally, Betty Boopesque voice.

There’s nothing truly awful on “Harmonium.” It doesn’t make the mistake of, say, covering the Rolling Stones. Miss Carlton’s first album, “Be Not Nothing,” botched up “Paint it Black.” Talk about misadventures.

There’s nothing to love on it, either. Nothing to sing along to, nothing to turn up on the radio and torture rock purists with.

Miss Carlton, if I may paraphrase the portentous title of your debut: Be not afraid of cheesy radio hits that earn you the scorn of self-important critics. You’ll laugh all the way to the bank.

Just ask your boyfriend.

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