Friday, March 15, 2013

album review: 'heaven in this hell' by orianthi

Hey guys, how many of you remember the music of 2010?

Well, if you're having a bit of trouble remembering the hits from this year, I'm not surprised. In 2010 we were in the middle of the club music explosion, driven on by the success of Ke$ha, the Black Eyed Peas, and more. This was a year that seemed dedicated to going to the club and partying at the club until the break of dawn, and the Billboard Charts definitely reflected that. 

But here was the problem: the majority of that music sucked.

Yeah, I'm not kidding around about this one. 2010 was an awful year for the Billboard charts, with very few songs that were memorable enough to like and a whole load of crap that was memorable enough to hate. A lot of people blame Ke$ha for 2010 being awful, but I don't, mostly because while she did have several hits that made the year end chart that year, she wasn't responsible for the trend of awful music stretching across multiple acts. There was no excuse for shit like 'Imma Be' or 'Hey Soul Sister' or 'Cooler Than Me' getting big, and Ke$ha had no connection to any of that awful.

But part of the problem was that most of the hit music of 2010 just sounded alike. It embodied club music in every sense of the word - ephemeral, energetic, fun to dance to but completely forgettable come the next morning. And since I went to the club a lot in 2010, I had a chance to hear all of the absolute worst the pop and hip-hop charts had to offer. And even worse was the fact that there was so little good music that charted that year to overtake the club hits, so much so that I had a really hard time making a year end top ten list in 2010. There just wasn't enough there was distinct enough to care about.

So thus I was as surprised as anyone that the number one song on my year end best list was a pop rock song called 'According To You' from some girl named Orianthi, which completely defied by expectations by being pretty damn awesome. It's a song where Orianthi viciously savages the last guy she was with for constantly putting her down, and then bragging about how her new boyfriend actually treats her with respect and affection.   So yeah, it's a pretty basic formula that's cribbed straight from Beyonce's playbook, but Orianthi brings a pretty significant presence to the track, mostly due to the fact she's a pretty great guitarist, to the point where it was probably one of the few songs that charted in 2010 that had a guitar solo. And considering we weren't getting any good Avril Lavigne or Pink in 2010, Orianthi seemed a welcome replacement, so I picked up her album to see if there was more where 'According To You' came from.

There really wasn't. And Orianthi's Believe really isn't a good album. Yes, she is a phenomenal guitarist, and yes, she can bring a lot of personality to her tracks despite some technical weaknesses in her vocal technique, but there was a lot of filler and weak material on that album, and nothing to show Orianthi was much of a good songwriter either. Part of the problem was that Orianthi put out a lot of songs about how happy she was she made it and her 'inspirational' story, and while there's a market for those types of songs, they do have a limited shelf life. Eventually, listeners get tired of hearing the story of how you started from the bottom and then accomplished your dreams and everyone else can too (talking about you here, Drake). And really, I'd be hard-pressed to find a good enough song on that album that could follow 'According To You'. And apparently her label (Geffen) agreed - Orianthi was dropped from the label and now her newest album is courtesy of Robo Records, which has the distinction of being the backing label of Charlie Sheen. Yikes.

But then I had a new thought - there was a solid chance that Orianthi never got the chance to shine as a songwriter because of label interference and rewrites, because Geffen sure as hell didn't know how to promote Orianthi, which is probably the reason she never eked out a second hit. So is Orianthi's follow-up show new songwriting promise, or is she doomed with the label of 'One Hit Wonder'?

Well, after listening through Orianthi's Heaven In This Hell, I can deliver both good news and bad news. The bad news is that in the current chart climate, I doubt Orianthi will ever get another hit on the Hot 100, and she'll probably retain her brand as a one-hit wonder for the rest of her career. And yeah, that really kind of sucks, but sometimes the 'sound' of the charts leaves you behind (there's a whole slew of pop-rock bands from the mid-2000s that can attest to that).

The good news is that you should get Orianthi's Heaven In This Hell anyways, because it's a  surprisingly solid little album, with a lot of good elements going for it. Now, granted, it's not going to change your life or achieve massive critical acclaim, but Orianthi has improved over her previous album, and there are some good signs here.

For starters, the core of what makes Orianthi an engaging performer is still intact - she's a great guitarist who can also sing with a lot of energy and intensity. And while her vocal delivery will never quite be as good as other singers, Orianthi tends to make it up through energy and staying within her range, which shows some self-awareness at the very least. She knows she's never going to be a belter or hit those insanely high notes, so she sticks to what she's comfortable with and amps up the volume, which I'll take over Pink's tragic attempts to sing at the top of her range and fail on The Truth About Love. I will say that Orianthi is much better on the louder, more raucous tracks than on the few token ballads, mostly because her voice just isn't as emotionally intense to sell them very well.

And on that note, the instrumentation isn't half-bad either. Getting ejected from Geffen seems to have given Orianthi the freedom to open up her sound, and the sludgy, harsh, raging guitar and bass she brings on her better tracks was surprisingly enjoyable. And like most talented guitarists who front their own acts, she's very much willing to utilize varied guitar styles and chord progressions between tracks, sometimes even switching things up mid-track. And like with her vocals, Orianthi's weaker tracks are the ballads, where she's deprived of her guitar solo to truly stand out. Strangely, I was a little surprised she never displayed much virtuoso acoustic work on those ballads - sure, there are bits and pieces of acoustic sound peppering the album, but nothing all that amazing, and Orianthi could have added a lot of personality with stronger guitarwork on the ballads.

Now, in the process of my research, I did learn that five of the tracks from this album were imported from her first EP Fire, which came out in 2011, including the title track. I suspect these were the last tracks she recorded with Geffen, because they do sound a little more professionally polished and mixed than the rest of her album, but they do fit surprisingly well in the mix, displaying some of the best of Orianthi's work ('Heaven In This Hell', 'Fire') and some of her worst (the bland ballads 'How Does That Feel', and 'If You Were Here With Me', the latter of which is arguably the worst track on the album).

But as always, we need to talk about the songwriting, and here, I'm happy to say that Orianthi has improved as a songwriter since Believe, having cowritten every song on her album. And while there are some visible signs of novice songwriting - lyrics feel clumsy in spots, rhymes don't always sync up, lines are either overwritten or underwritten - what I want to talk about is Orianthi's shift in themes. On Believe, many of the themes were centered around rising up and finally making it as a star, the backing musician finally taking the mic, and all that dross we've all heard a thousand times before.

Fortunately, Orianthi only touches on that subject once on her new album (on the revealing and desperate-sounding 'If U Think U Know Me', where she pleads for her fanbase to rise up and kick ass with her, which turns out to be a pretty sweet track in the end). Instead, she has substituted it with a several songs about shitty or failing relationships, both in the 'hate how much I love you' mold and full breakup/'get over it' tracks. Orianthi says that she took inspiration from modern country and blues on this album, and I believe it, particularly in the Kelly Clarkson / Carrie Underwood mold. And while there's no track on Heaven In This Hell that quite nails the height of 'Since You've Been Gone', I'd argue Orianthi definitely reaches the heights of both of those artists on this album, and even in some cases surpasses them.

Now that's a bold statement, but you'd be surprised how much it fits, particularly when you consider the mid-to-late period work of both Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Yes, they are better singers than Orianthi, but the problem I've had with both of those artists is that they have a difficulty attaining the correct tone with instrumentation and lyrical quality. The fact is that as much as I liked most of Kelly Clarkson's My December, it and nearly the rest of her material will always sit in the shadow of 'Since You've Been Gone', and her work has only gone steadily downhill because of sloppy songwriting and bland instrumentation. Carrie Underwood, on the other hand, has marginally better songwriting, but my issue is with Underwood is a matter of tone. At least with Clarkson there were points where the instrumentation got darker and harsher to support the lyrics, but Underwood's music comes across as much more smug and arrogant when juxtaposed against the nastiness of her lyrics. It's a similar issue I have with Lily Allen, actually - smug arrogance is seldom an emotion that comes off well in pop music, at least not without embarrassingly good songwriting to back it.

But you can tell there isn't an iota of that arrogance in Orianthi's delivery, just raw, desperate anger, backed by the viciously impeccable guitarwork. The usage of the word 'desperate' is intentional here - Orianthi sounds like she's got nothing left to lose, and she's going for broke, so much so that her more sedated songs feel like low points on the album (even though I'd really argue her only 'bad' song (and it's more bland than bad) is the token slow ballad 'If You Were Here With Me'). And really, that speaks volumes in her favour, as it makes her come across as relatable and vulnerable, the artist who knows she has one final chance to salvage her career and is going for broke with whatever she has left. And since she's doing so with excellent distorted guitars and pounding beats supporting pretty decent songwriting, her intensity channels into a surprisingly good album.

So, all in all, I'd recommend Orianthi's Heaven In This Hell, particularly if you liked 'According To You' and want to see what happens when Orianthi has the freedom to use rougher guitars and harsher delivery. Yeah, it's not quite as gloriously punk rock as I hoped for, and the album does have some amateurish touches, it doesn't suffer much from them. Imagine Avril Lavigne's Under My Skin with a more mature vocalist and sharper songwriting swapped for sharp, incendiary guitarwork, and you might find a rough parallel. And like any struggling artist, I'd love to see Orianthi's stuff get some mainstream airplay.

Yeah, I know it's not going to happen, but a guy can hope. And now you all may go back to forgetting that 2010 ever happened.

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