Not So Little Voice

Shortly after the iTunes program was released (1998?), I started the long process of transferring my music to my computer. I lived in an apartment at the time, and my computer and stereo were situated right next to each other in the smallish front room; the potential for my computer to act as jukebox was too good to pass up, and I quickly had the two connected so that my trusty Mac was pumping tunes straight through my amplifier. When the stereo’s CD player stopped working some time later, I barely noticed — as by that time I was already pretty exclusively playing music from the computer.

This of course significantly changed my music listening habits. I saw the “shuffle” effect, as rather than listening to a few favored CDs over and over again, I was hearing a lot of forgotten favorites — especially a lot of songs that were the one or two good songs on an otherwise lesser album.

The flipside of this is that I very quickly stopped listening to whole albums all that much. In my CD listening days I would get a new album, and if it was a good one, I would listen to that album over and over again several times, getting to know the music and the lyrics — learning the subtle licks, backgrounds, and vocalizations that distinguish a great album from a good one. Post-iTunes, I buy a new album and it gets a listen or two, then goes into the mix.

Until now.

I haven’t written a lot of reviews on this website — just a few book reviews in the early days. A couple weeks ago I purchased an album from iTunes that has already become my favorite. A few weeks ago Apple released a single from the album as the free Song of the Week, as a preview of an upcoming album. Unlike many of the (generally pretty good) free songs from Apple, I found myself listening to this one over and over again. When I saw that the album was out, I picked it up.

The album in question, Sara Bareilles’ Little Voice, has quickly become my favorite new album in at least ten years. It would be easier, actually, to tell you which are the least of the songs on this outstanding mix — featuring a range of song styles from funky pianos to slow plaintive ballads, with powerful, fluid vocals, catchy tunes, and intelligent lyrics. The arrangements are simple enough to be catchy, but complex enough to have levels worth listening for; and her voice is a smoky amalgam of power and sweetness somewhere between Sheryl Crow and Sarah McLachlan. (Her voice itself leans toward the latter, while her style frequently evokes the former.) [Update: Corrected the previous sentence. I had the two switched!]

The first thing that catches you is the bouncy piano rhythm throughout the first track, Love Song. The arrangements are extremely listenable — and that’s before the singer’s voice kicks in and grabs you. It wasn’t long before I really started listening to the lyrics — and discovering a poetic strength that evokes the originality (if not the quirkiness) of early Crash Test Dummies albums.

It’s also worth mentioning the background vocals — which are arranged with the same skill as the instrumentation. They slip in from time to time and buoy the main vocal without overwhelming, appearing only when necessary and falling away as soon as they’re not — leaving us able to enjoy Bareilles’ clean tones and soulful articulation.

There are no songs on this album that I do not like — something I’m not sure I can claim about any other album. Love on the Rocks is probably the most formulaic — with a pattern of refrain and verse that primarily acts as a vehicle for repeating the titular catchphrase over and over again, but even that is a very listenable song. Fairy Tale builds off a clever conceit of using fairy tale characters and lamenting their problems with men — with verses for Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel, and others. City is a beautiful reflection on longing — echoing, in a totally different style, the earlier Vegas. The aforementioned Love Song — the free single that first drew my attention — is cleverly written and catchy. Morningside is a energetic funk jam — showing some of the most prominent backgrounds on the album. Winding it all up is the slow, mournful “Gravity” — the most beautiful song on the album, and perhaps my favorite.

Little Voice” is a strong mix of moods and modes, with something for just about every mood. I can’t think of any album in years that I would recommend more highly than this — it’s an outstanding work.

Update: I saw the calendar on her website. She played a local gig just this Saturday and I missed it! AARRRGGGGGHHHHH!!!!!

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