American Idol helped propel Sara Bareilles's career into the mainstream. Now, the California singer-songwriter is hoping Glee will sustain her fame.
Those are exaggerated claims, for sure. Bareilles generated buzz before several Idolettes the past couple seasons covered "Love Song" – as in, "I'm not gonna write you a…." In fact, the bittersweet, punchy pop song became a hit in large measure due to prominent play in a 2007 television commercial for the Rhapsody music service. But Idol certainly helped keep her in the spotlight. Like most popular artists today, Bareilles's success has depended on television exposure.
So it wouldn't be a surprise if Bareilles intentionally set out to follow her 2007 major-label debut Little Voice with a set geared for Glee. I'm not saying the 30-year-old did that with Kaleidoscope Heart. But the new album features several songs that should appeal to Glee fans. And if the show's producers take notice -- and the No. 1 debut on Billboard's main album chart should help -- they'll certainly have a hard time deciding among several strong contenders for covering on the show. Should it be the Maroon 5-esque soul-rocker "Say You're Sorry," in which Bareilles asks her soon-to-be ex "for the one word that you refuse to say to me?" Maybe they'd opt for "Gonna Get Over You," a doo-wop-styled stomper about trying to get over someone. That song features a slightly psychedelic pop bridge and a climax that includes a couple vocal chants just perfect for a Glee chorus: "Wa-oo-ew-oo-ew-oo-oh" and "ba-ba-ba."
Bareilles took well over a year creating Kaleidoscope Heart, and the end result isn't what it might have been. Nowhere to be found are the publicized, intriguing collaborations with the likes of Pharrell Williams, the Roots rapper Questlove or members of Weezer. Instead, all songs were written solely by Bareilles except for one track she co-wrote with rock guitarist Sam Farrar. In press notes Bareilles says she struggled with the album until she scrapped most of the tracks she had written and created new ones based on "Uncharted," which she calls the album's centerpiece. "I'm already out of foolproof ideas, so don't ask me how to get started," she sings. "It's all uncharted." Actually it's not. This pleasant, slightly twangy piano-driven tune is a tried-and-true brand of bluesy pop/rock, following in Kelly Clarkson's sound steps, to name a recent example, and at its base, Elton John and Billy Joel. It's a bit showy, even a little blustery, but ultimately sweet and smooth. Catchy.
All told, Bareilles doesn't break much new ground with Kaleidoscope Heart, which traffics in styles popularized by other female artists that have gone before her, from Sarah McLachlan to Vanessa Carlton. The lyrics, generally about heartbreak and perseverance, are mostly quotidian, too. It may not stir much passion, but it's practically impossible to dislike.
Take first single "King of Anything," which was prominently featured in the new season premiere of CBS's Medium. Bareilles describes the song as a "sort of f*ck you song" to all those who have given her unsolicited advice. It's too cute to rile anyone though. And the clichéd lyrics are borderline groan-inducing.
Certainly, Bareilles offers hope for her future output. Her work here with producer Neal Avron (Fall Out Boy) produces songs that sparkle with little touches, from tricky syncopation to a sumptuous musical bed: lots of piano, all kinds of strings, even harmonica and synths. Bareilles even handles many of the music-playing duties herself.
"The Light," for example, starts as a slow-burn, heavy-hearted piano ballad but quickly builds to become a pulsating, pretty, mid-tempo anthem. The song takes several twists and turns as it goes, alternately adding then removing layers of instrumentation, managing to both hold your interest and capture the anxiety of the lyrics. "And if you say we'll be alright, I'm gonna trust you babe," Bareilles sings. "I'll follow you into the light."
Just like a kaleidoscope, the light -- and certainly more twists and turns -- should improve her reflection.