– by David Schatanoff, Jr.
So last year… on every Wednesday… I would get home from work and my wife would throw me a cell phone, and my bluetooth headset and yell, “START VOTING”!!! For the next two hours, we would hit the redial button on home phones, cell phones, internet phones, satellite phones, smoke signals, aldis lamps and semaphore flags… all in an effort to vote for our pick to win the American Idol singing competition. Personally, I love the first month or so when they wade through the hundereds of screen hungry people who couldn’t sing their way out of wet paper bags. But there are some contestants that are worth the investment.
There’s a good list of winners that the Idol machine has exposed to the world. Season one was Kelly Clarkson all the way, and her upcoming album is going to be good… I can feel it. She’s working with Punk Rock icon and Minuetmen bassist, Mike Watt, so it’s bound to be a sonically appealing collaboration. Season two gave us Ruben Studdard The Velvet Teddybear, season three – Fantasia Barrino, and season four – Carrie Underwood.
Now… winning American Idol does not equate success. The most successful of all Idol winners is Kelly Clarkson. In fact, there seems to be a mild simmer for every winner since season one. In my opinion, this is because if you win, you are instantly part of the Idol Machine. This of course means that Idol has control of your image, your sound, your production and marketing team… all the essentials that will get your career as an artist going. So it was with a sigh of relief when Taylor Hicks won Idol and is now nowhere to be seen or heard. At least he’s looking healthy and happy; but Taylor’s music is the kind of music I would listen to at a college frat kegger (no offense Phi Delts). I sound like Simon Cowell saying that, but it’s the truth. Ok, he’s not bad, but if I want to listen to Michael McDonald, I’ll listen to Michael McDonald.
So what makes Katharine McPhee stand out? How is her voice, her album and the Katharine McPhee brand so different from everything else out there? Well, the truth is: It’s not original. Nothing has been all that original since the western tonal scale was invented. So things are either appealing and interesting, or completely ‘been there-done that’. So when Katharine finally released her solo debut album, I was interested to see if she could break free from her Idol persona and really show us something about herself as an artist.
There were a total of four label leaked samples and they all got me interested; the most memorable one for me was “Open Toes.” It was completely different from anything she had done on Idol, and it got me thinking about what the rest of the album was going to be like. The following samples are not only my favorites, but they also best represent Katharine as a non-AI Machine product.
“Not Ur Gir”l is a total throw-back song. It’s got that old-time, smooth-sounding groove going on and Katharine’s voice just compliments the lyrics perfectly. There is something very natural about her voice and it’s just not the little giggle they left in around 3:30 into the song. I like that her producers and the rest of her team really put together a lot of great tonal layers for her to work in. The harmonies are solid and Katharine has a developed pop-sensibility that translates really well in all the songs on the album. It’s kind of “old meets new,” which is always interesting to me. In an age of samples, 70s disco meets techno and punk-rock meets alt-rock bands, it’s great to hear a vocalist that does it so seemlessly. The music is clearly something new, but still feels like it has a place in time that is distinctly seasoned and beyond its years in wisdom.
Katharine McPhee – Not Ur Girl
Ahhh, slow songs. The cornerstone of any good high-school dance. I don’t think you will ever hear “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at a high school dance… and I am happy that we will never hear Katharine sing that song again… at least not for a LONG time. It did kind of break her free from some of the vocally restricting songs she was singing on Idol and Simon knows how to bring out the best in artist he feels has the “zed” factor. So “Each Other” is the song that will replace “Rainbow,” not because she should be surrounded by a Lion, Tin Man, Scarecrow and her little dog too; but because there are going to be a lot of puppy-love, first kiss pre-teens out there who will be listening to this one. I love her phrasing in this song and my favorite lyric: “You’re like a pillow I can hold on to, ’cause we got each other.” Enjoy the sample!
Katharine McPhee – Each Other
Now we touched on the high school ballad. But what about the Disney “tragic-hero courting the tourtured damsel being held in the tower” ballad? I think that was one of the best descriptions I’ve heard for the song “Ordinary World.” (Thanks to Kat fan Liz for the observation.) And it’s not a bad thing. This song will not be a single. There is not an outlet for it. But it is in no means “Album Filler.” Katharine fans around the country will be purchasing the piano sheet music for this one. It’s really poignant and touching, and Katharine has such control over her voice that is sounds like she is whispering the intro of the song to you in confidence. She opens up a little in the second verse and then lets it rip for the second chorus. So listen up all you “music soops” out there… I want to hear this song in a Sony Imageworks, Pixar, Disney, (studio formerly known as) Fox Animation, and a Warner Brothers Animation feature film by years end! Now get to work! The rest of you, enjoy the sample.
Katharine McPhee – Ordinary World
So what about the fun? The amount of flack Katharine took on the cover art (seen at the top of the post) was laughable. She’s young, she’s good looking and she’s an emerging artist. So as far as I’m concerned, the cover is perfect. It got people talking that didn’t care for it. It got people interested in her who thought she was “plain Jane”. But Katharine isn’t just the GIRL guys want for a girlfriend, she’s the FRIEND guys want that happens to be a girl. The footage of her in the studio listening to the playback of “Do What You Do” sums it up for me. She’s a goof, she’s playful, she’s got talent and she likes to have fun. This song and “Open Toes” are what I expected the entire album to be like. Check this track out–hang in past the intro and pay attention to how the vocal tracks are assembled in this one. People often talk about how electronic things sound nowadays, but these people are the ones who listen to hippies with Martin Backpacker guitars and dirty guys playing Cajons recorded on 4-track tape. The reality of it is that some artists need help to sound good…not great, just good. This is where the pitch correction plug-in for the Protools HD system works overtime. The other reality is that the other artists do not need help to sound good, but use the “robotic-electro-Sher-o-matic” sound of the pitch corrector as a production tool. Give this track a listen and hear how it sounds when it’s used as a production choice.
Katharine McPhee – Do What You Do
I had the chance to see Katharine a couple times in person. The first was at the Grove Holiday Tree Lighting at the Los Angeles Farmers Market. She sounded great in person covering the Christmas Song. We also had the chance to see her at Kimmel Live and she sounded great. But I love the covers… all the non-Idol covers. I do admit that “Black Horse and Cherry Tree” was the turning point for me but I can’t wait to see her do more covers in a live setting. Here’s the most recent offering: Katharine singing Paul Cole’s “Me” from the Pepsi Smash studios.
Katharine McPhee – Me
Here’s some video we got of “Love Story” from Kimmel Live. Sorry for the 8-bit crappy audio…
And “Home” from the same evening.
So over all, I really like the album. It’s fun, it shows a musicality that is found in seasoned professionals, there’s room to grow and improve but it’s not starting off on the ground floor reaching for the stars. I know all the tracks on here are not all tracks that Kat wanted on there. So her sophomore album could theoretically be spectacular. The topics she covers reflect her youth and struggle between social acceptance and isolation. Too deep? Well, listen to “Better Off Alone” for some Greg Bissonette action on the drums. I like that she is a somewhat learned artist and has a formal and informal knowledge of her craft. I see her talking quietly before performances, never screaming and yelling before shows, taking care of the instruments that she has taken the time to develop. I’m really happy with the production and this album has found a home in my car changer for over a month now (which is amazing given the number of albums I am listening to and potentially reviewing). Hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as I have and will find a home for it in your collection too.
Katharine McPhee was recently in Italy promoting Sexy Hair as their Spokesperson and has upcoming performances in Uniondale, NY; Atlanta, GA and Kansas City, MO. She is currently signed with RCA Records. Check her website or Myspace page for details.
Purchase the self titled album “Katharine McPhee”
Visit the official website – www.katharinemcphee.com
– David Schatanoff, Jr.