Saturday, October 24, 2009

Chantal Kreviazuk - Plain Jane [music review]

* Released October 13th
Plain Jane is the fifth studio album from Canadian singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk and her first for indie label MapleMusic after ten years with major label Columbia-Sony. The change in labels was influenced by the departure of familiar personnel from Columbia-Sony, plus a desire for a more fair business arrangement in terms of royalties from her music's sales. Kreviazuk says in an interview with Sun Media that the only money she has made since entering the music business is from touring and as a successful songwriter for artists such as Avril Lavigne, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, David Cook and Gwen Stefani.
She wears the change of scenery well, with Plain Jane a marked improvement from 2002's spotty What If It All Means Something and 2006's similarly uneven Ghost Stories. With the latter, Kreviazuk and husband Raine Maida (lead singer from Our Lady Peace and the album's producer) made a conscious effort to focus more on Kreviazuk's primary instrument (piano) and refrained from having any guitars whatsoever on the album, which seemed a puzzling choice at the time, and even now, in fact. The soundscapes were filled out with different stringed instruments, of the orchestral variety. Either way, the album was lacking in strong material...the requisite number of solid, signature "poppier" Kreviazuk songs failed to be supported by their more experimental companions.
Kreviazuk has a reputation for churning out safe pop occasionally saddled with sappy lyrics, making her a poster child for the "adult alternative" radio format, an easy mistake to make because most of her singles follow this formula. Scratch below the surface a little, though, and more dimensions reveal themselves. And by "scratch below the surface" I simply mean just listen to one of her CD's from beginning to end. All of her albums have balanced both the commercial and more artistic side and even when it doesn't always work (see Ghost Stories) I at least give her credit for not completely playing it safe.
Plain Jane is all over the place, stylistically, and this time around she finds the right formula. First single "Invincible" is basically an update of her most recognizable traits (a piano driven melody that builds into a big, hooky chorus resulting in a song that grabs you instantly). "Half Of Me" then marks a departure as it dips into an R & B flavour that brings to mind a more restrained Alicia Keys. "Ordinary People" follows a fairly straightforward musical arrangement, which almost seems fitting given the simplicity of the lyrics ("We punch the clock/Day begins/Work gets done/We start over again/We're ordinary people"). Nothing groundbreaking, but still highly listenable.
The spare "5000 Days" provides the album's highlight, with a beautiful pairing of Kreviazuk's piano and a lush string section. Her occasional dips into notes slightly out of her vocal range are mildly jarring, though not enough to overshadow the rest of the song's strengths. "Kerosene Lamp" trades in piano for a nylon string guitar, again pairing up with a string arrangement that produces a funky, laid back salsa-inflected number that recalls Nelly Furtado before Timbaland got his meaty, hacky paws on her. The title track is Kreviazuk's biggest musical departure to date, a quiet, straight-up jazz song featuring an appearance by jazz artist Chris Botti. I disliked it initially, in keeping with my lack of interest in that style of music, but subsequent listens turned me around. Coldplay sounds like the most obvious influence for "The Way", a track overflowing with grandiose ambitions and more hooks that'll bore their way into your brain.
The album's only dud? Final track "Na Miso", co-sung with the nanny of Kreviazuk's children, partially in the African language of her homeland. It's a noble attempt at trying to broaden the listener's horizons and likely an outgrowth of the singer's interest in the culture via her significant charity work...even still, it's the only track on Plain Jane that has me reaching for the skip button. Everything else is highly deserving of your ears.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆