Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Single Review: Ingrid Michaelson "Parachute"

There are few artists whose music I am willing to purchase sound unheard, based simply on an earned trust that the likelihood of enjoyment is worth the risk. When a new single from Ingrid Michaelson popped up this week on iTunes, I wasted no time clicking over to the download page, where I was momentarily distracted by the first few rather polarized user reviews that, frankly, made my purchase even more certain. It seemed that dear Ingrid had - horror of horrors - gone pop.


In truth, I am a complete poser when it comes to Michaelson, the bespectacled singer-songwriter darling from New York. I fell in love with her breakthrough single "The Way I Am" when I had to hunt it down after hearing it in Old Navy commercials in my pre-blogging days, and thenceforth would proclaim myself a fan if asked despite never having heard another of her tracks - or even trying to. Hers is, or was, I imagine(d), the kind of music I enjoy when it's on and I don't have to pay much attention, but that I wouldn't seek out in bulk, as to me the songs all tend to sound rather the same (which, I'd guess, is what her hardcore followers probably think about the music I generally blog about). But what I'd heard I'd liked, and I was content.

Michaelson's new single, "Parachute," is a new interpretation of a song written for British pop chanteuse Cheryl Cole's recent debut album by Michaelson and Marshall Altman, and while it is in fact a bonafide pop single, the apocalyptic cries of selling out to the dark side of manufactured pop are amusing in light of Cole's version (a sensual, surprisingly effective tango, slower than Michaelson's). People can argue back and forth and on and on ad nauseum about the lyrical content (think of the metaphor of lover as parachute, i.e. protection from falling...and you've pretty much got it) or the verse-chorus-bridge structure (more on that in a moment) all they want, because as this is a pop song, those things really aren't the point, nor are they what sets good pop apart from the rest.

What Michaelson does with "Parachute" that is notable, and that will likely keep it in heavy rotation on my playlist for a few weeks before I play it out, is produce an expertly crafted pop single that doesn't sound typical or derivative. Like Cee Lo Green, Mike Posner, La Roux, and Michaelson's friend Sara Bareilles have all done in the past several months, Michaelson has come out with a good pop single that doesn't really sound like a pop single at all...and that's a skill a clever artist from outside the mainstream pop scene (like Green, Posner, La Roux and Bareilles) can take all the way to the bank.

The background vocals, which start the track nearly free of instrumentation and whose appeal is immediate and addictive, run throughout the tune's three minute and twenty second running time, serving as part of the instrumental as much, if not more than, as the vocal track. The rest of the musical backing is spare to moderate: subtle strings make an appearance during the chorus, accordion-like synths crescendo phrases in the verses into the next and help the first verse barrel into the first chorus, and an unusually authentic electric bass guitar underscores the pop-but-not-pop quality of the record. The percussion has more personality than your average synth-pop production, second only to Michaelson's wistful if somewhat detached vocal in terms of conveying emotion, beginning with the deep smash of the kick drum in the fifth bar that signals the entrance of the second layer of sound over the claps, light cymbal and side stick, and background vocals. Michaelson has performed the piece live for months, and though my ear is not well enough trained to know for sure, if the bass and drum tracks at least were not recorded from live instruments then her producer has done his homework.

Michaelson's vocal is at once the strongest and weakest part of the record. As charming as it was, "The Way I Am" stood out more for its disarmingly mundane lyrics ("I'll buy you Rogaine/ When you start losing all your hair") than the young woman singing them. Not so on "Parachute," which is probably a blessing since lyrically, particularly on the chorus, the song is no great leap forward from Rihanna's "Hard," Britney Spears' "Gimme More" or even Marilyn Manson's "Beautiful People," for that matter: instead it's Michaelson's unique voice that shows through on lines like "You are your own worst enemy/ You'll never win the fight." Indeed, in other moments her musical delivery hearkens back to the eager, starry-eyed, lovable Michaelson one gets in "The Way I Am," as in the slight upward trill of "Hand behind my neck/ Arm around my waist." Those are easily the most convincing and effective moments of the track, and it's only regrettable that the vocal is only inconsistently so, the rest of the time veering toward a disaffected ho-hum a bit closer to insincerity than even the pop-infused listener cares to hear.

The track's best moment arrives at the end of the record, when, after the two big final repetitions of the chorus, the instrumental unexpectedly strips down almost to the sparseness of the opening and Michaelson coos the now familiar chorus in the same cool, intriguing voice with which she begins the piece. This conclusion lends an almost eerie mystique to the track - it sent a small chill up my spine the first time I heard it - and also jolts the unsuspecting listener, who has to that point reveled in three minutes of close to pure pop joy, back to the awareness that here is not something one hears every day. Michaelson has taken a skillfully crafted pop song - which is not her milieu to begin with - and made a skillfully crafted pop record...so much so that, except for small and often subtle moments, a listener can easily forget just how unusual a pop record it is. And whether "Parachute" is an ego-inspired one-off or a sneak peek of a "new sound" pursued on her upcoming album, that is a feat for which she should be congratulated.

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