Album Review: Haley Reinhart – Listen Up!

Though she didn’t win last season of American Idol, Haley Reinhart still managed one of the most impressive and unlikely runs on her way to a respectable third place finish. While every contestant on Idol dabbles across genres to some degree, Reinhart was especially hard to define stylistically; she jumped between jazz, soul, classic rock, R&B, country and contemporary pop to varying degrees of success. On Listen Up!, Haley has a clearly defined sound, though that doesn’t mean she’s settled on just one genre. It’s entirely retro, recalling sounds from every decade since the 60’s, mixing Motown with funk with neo-soul with disco with throwback pop. The record has a surprisingly left-field sound for a debut CD of an Idol alum, which ends up being the source of its biggest strength and weakness.

Listen Up! is a strikingly solid effort, with most tracks contributing something unique to the album. It’s a shame, then, that the opening track is easily the worst. “Oh My!” prominently features horns that blast throughout the entire song, effectively robbing the song of any potential dynamics. The entire track is unnecessarily loud, with a refrain that consists solely of Haley screaming “oh my”. It’s hook-less and sloppily delivered, and B.o.B’s verse is uninspired and uncharacteristically clunky. As a huge fan of B.o.B, I was disappointed across the board. It’d be an absolute mistake to release a track this messy to contemporary radio, though with a featuring credit, that’s certainly what’s going to happen.

Luckily, the album picks up considerably with “Free” which was wisely released as the first single. The chorus glides over tinkling keys and provides the catchiest melody on the entire CD. It’s a bouncy, piano pop song driven by Haley’s distinct jazz-styled vocals. Where “Oh My!” shows all the way Haley can misuse her voice, “Free” places the many gorgeous textures and quirks of her voice on impressive display. Haley continues to effortlessly twists lines like “You gave me chills not scars / Left me with nothing to hate” on the gripping “Liar”.

The CD then even more clearly takes us to the past, though when exactly in the past I’m still not entirely clear on. “Wasted Tears” begins with a drumbeat and backing vocals that are clearly Motown, but along the way mixes in a deep funk bass line and some occasional disco flourishes on the chorus. Still, it all comes together in one of the album’s strongest melodies. Dare I say it’s even reminiscent of “Rolling In The Deep” at times. And, well, any Adele comparison in this day and age is a good one.

Listening to “Undone” is endlessly frustrating. The song has the bones of a perfect pop ballad; to keep with the Adele analogy, it’s Haley’s “Someone Like You.” The first verse contains a quiet piano line with a subtle lilting melody that Haley deftly maneuvers. The song then swells perfectly at the chorus, guided by Haley throwing her soul into every word. The problem? The end of the chorus kicks in with some synthesized strings and a synthesized choir that cheapen an otherwise extraordinary song. In this case, less is absolutely more.

Her fun side comes out on “Now That You’re Here”, which is a light blend of disco and funk, and “Wonderland”, which brings some straight-up Motown stylings again. While both tracks are carefree with a definitely groove, neither are particularly memorable in the long run. They both lack that extra spark and polish necessary to bring them into the year 2012.

Also groovy, but much more interesting, is “Keep Coming Back”, which is a little bit of soul and a heaping helping of funk. Haley uses her easily distinguishable growl sparingly on the record, but brings it out to truly attack the chorus of this one. The song drags on a bit at the end and the last minute could be easily cut to get to the cool, sultry “Hit The Ground Runnin'” faster. “Hit The Ground Runnin'” is seductive even as Haley warns, “I hit the ground runnin’, so don’t go following me.”

The album closes with Haley’s head in the clouds. “Walking On Heaven” is airy and sweet in tone and content. The song is just one more side of Haley, both stylistically and lyrically. The track, as with the rest of the album, stands out because of its clear throwback vibe and lack of adherence to modern pop conventions. It makes for an enjoyable, interesting listening experience, though after four full listens, I’d still be hard pressed to sing a melody.

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