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Pop - Released January 1, 2002 | A&M

Vanessa Carlton probably couldn't have happened without Alicia Keys, but that doesn't mean they sound the same. Both artists are preternaturally talented and write on keyboards, sounding much older than their years. The difference is, Carlton pretty much revels in her advanced years, creating a record that recalls the lush ambition of Keys, but also the soul-searching of Fiona Apple and the precise intricacies of Rick Wakeman. Certainly, this wasn't something she planned to evoke, but the end result is pretty impressive all the same, because it's so well crafted, from both Carlton and her producer, Ron Fair, who doesn't stop her from taking leaps that could potentially prove embarrassing. And there are embarrassing moments on her debut, Be Not Nobody, the most notable of those is a ham-fisted, melodramatic cover of the Stones' "Paint It, Black," which for all the world feels like a single dictated by the studio. That's the nadir of the album, but the rest is charmingly ambitious and often quite accomplished. Take the lead single, "A Thousand Miles" -- as it moves from its solo piano opening to bombastic orchestral-backed choruses, the result isn't overwhelming, it's sweet, multi-layered, and appealing. And most of her debut album follows that lead, often overflowing with soaring strings, intimate pianos, crooned vocals, and pretty melodies, yet it all gels because Carlton shows the potential of a songwriter who can convey her emotions through her songcraft. Sure, some of Be Not Nobody is naïve, but much of it's well crafted and nearly all of it is endearing; it's a rare debut that is quite enjoyable in its own right yet is almost more enticing because of what it suggests that she could do next. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop - Released January 1, 2004 | A&M

On her second album Harmonium, singer/songwriter Vanessa Carlton enlists her boyfriend, Stephan Jenkins -- best-known as the frontman of the popular post-grunge band Third Eye Blind -- as a producer and co-songwriter, and his presence doesn't so much alter Carlton's music as give it a sharper, direct focus. Carlton and Jenkins focus on the lush, dramatic teenage angst that made "A Thousand Miles" a big hit in 2002, using that song as the template for a collection of songs that are intimate on a grand scale. Carlton's songs often read like diary entries, dealing with familiar adolescent themes as love and longing, and they sound even smaller when delivered in her thin but appealing girlish voice, but they gain stature when married to their cinematic arrangements, driven by her insistent, circular piano and dressed by light layers of strings, guitars, and vocal overdubs. Where her debut, Be Not Nobody, could sound endearingly awkward, Harmonium is confident and somber, a conscious attempt to be serious and mature that nevertheless still sounds adolescent, largely due to her earnest lyrics and overly ambitious music. Carlton seems to equate seriousness with a lack of hooks, either in the music or the production, so there's nothing as immediate or memorable as "A Thousand Miles," which means there's nothing to lead a listener into the world she sketches on the album -- only those already won over by the entirety of her debut will have the patience to dig deeply into this insular album. That's not to say that this is a difficult album, or even a challenging one -- it's merely a transitional one, with some good ideas and some good songs that don't quite gel as a full record, even if Jenkins gives the album a cohesive sound. Ultimately, Carlton is so intent on being serious, so intent on crafting her songs and sound, that she winds up with an album that's admirable but for its intent, but not its achievement. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop - Released November 9, 2004 | A&M

On her second album Harmonium, singer/songwriter Vanessa Carlton enlists her boyfriend, Stephan Jenkins -- best-known as the frontman of the popular post-grunge band Third Eye Blind -- as a producer and co-songwriter, and his presence doesn't so much alter Carlton's music as give it a sharper, direct focus. Carlton and Jenkins focus on the lush, dramatic teenage angst that made "A Thousand Miles" a big hit in 2002, using that song as the template for a collection of songs that are intimate on a grand scale. Carlton's songs often read like diary entries, dealing with familiar adolescent themes as love and longing, and they sound even smaller when delivered in her thin but appealing girlish voice, but they gain stature when married to their cinematic arrangements, driven by her insistent, circular piano and dressed by light layers of strings, guitars, and vocal overdubs. Where her debut, Be Not Nobody, could sound endearingly awkward, Harmonium is confident and somber, a conscious attempt to be serious and mature that nevertheless still sounds adolescent, largely due to her earnest lyrics and overly ambitious music. Carlton seems to equate seriousness with a lack of hooks, either in the music or the production, so there's nothing as immediate or memorable as "A Thousand Miles," which means there's nothing to lead a listener into the world she sketches on the album -- only those already won over by the entirety of her debut will have the patience to dig deeply into this insular album. That's not to say that this is a difficult album, or even a challenging one -- it's merely a transitional one, with some good ideas and some good songs that don't quite gel as a full record, even if Jenkins gives the album a cohesive sound. Ultimately, Carlton is so intent on being serious, so intent on crafting her songs and sound, that she winds up with an album that's admirable but for its intent, but not its achievement. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo