by Amanda Smith & Gabe Valdez
What happens when you take a Broadway singer and stuff her into a Katy Perry pop mold? Some good things, some bad.
Louder is Lea Michele’s debut album (free of Broadway or Glee soundtracks) and she uses 29 writers and 21 producers in just 11 songs. Or maybe they use her.
When it was released on February 28, Michele was roundly trashed, getting 1.5 stars (out of 5) from Rolling Stone. Idolator was the kindest around, rating Michele 3.5 stars. Very occasionally, they even remembered to grade the album, too.
They were in the ballpark, though. The album has some disastrous moments. So what went wrong? That’s easier to find if we start with what went right.
“Cannonball” is a strong opener. It hits listeners with Michele’s Broadway chops via the repetitive chorus: “I’ll fly like a cannonball.” This is an appropriate metaphor. As any Glee viewer can tell you, Michele is best when she’s allowed to sing to the back of the room.
Pop star Sia Furler wrote “Cannonball” and Norwegian duo Stargate produced it. They’re smart to strip the power ballad to basics: Michele’s only accompaniments are canned drums set to 1980s riff and a walking synth line that revisits the same five chords for three minutes straight. Soft electric string tones join in the middle to add a cathartic note (literally, they add only one note). An airy piano, which hands the walking line to the synth at the beginning, returns at the end to reflect Michele shedding the song’s dark, depressing opening lyrics and finding strength.
With the most basic level of instrumentation, the song is forced to rely on Michele and her background singers. This is great: it fits into Glee‘s semi-a cappella mode that’s been designed for Michele over 121 hours of TV. There’s nothing extraneous in “Cannonball,” and that puts the burden on her vocals.
(More voice means more emotion. This was the theory when Peter Gabriel and Real World Studios first re-engineered pop music around canned drum cycles in the mid-1980s.)
Portamento (pitch sliding) is not Michele’s forte. She hits a note perfectly, but when she’s asked to slur from one to the next in a single syllable, it doesn’t often sound right. More consistent production could have done a better job of hiding or orchestrating around this, and the best production on the album does.
Not surprisingly, the songs written by Sia are the album’s standouts – “Cannonball,” “Battlefield,” “You’re Mine,” and “If You Say So.” Not all of them were originally written for Michele, and maybe that’s why they work.
“Battlefield” is also the only song produced by Josh Abraham. He began his career in the production booth for heavy metal groups Danzig and Orgy and rap-rock bands that don’t know how to spell Limp Bizkit, Staind, and Linkin Park. Love or hate them, these are all bands that limit the number of sounds that take place in their songs. They’re loud, but they’re not complicated. There’s no Wall of Sound to deal with.
“Battlefield” is Michele accompanied by piano and drums. There’s also an African chorus that feels like it entered the wrong recording booth, but it finds its way out quickly enough. “Battlefield” is the song that feels closest to a Broadway solo.
“You’re Mine” sounds more like a Selena Gomez song. Michele’s wanting portamento is replaced with quick, staccato note changes. She’s accompanied by canned drums, emotive strings (synthed), and occasional piano. This is one of two songs on Louder that Chris Braide produced. He’s previously produced for Sia, Lana Del Rey, and Malaysian singer Yuna. His synthesized strings are a trademark.
As he does for those artists, he makes sure to keep the instrumental elements in the background, supportive of Michele. The drums use reverb to complement Michele’s ability to assertively hold notes, and pull back to soft clapping for a relaxed three-quarter break. The strings are held to a walking series of choruses so they can’t become a focus. Like “Cannonball,” “You’re Mine” rightly places the weight of the song on Michele’s aggressive delivery.
“If You Say So” is a good performance in the wrong song. Unlike “Cannonball,” Sia wrote it with Michele in mind, but it feels like it was written for Sia by Sia. Lyrics like “I check my phone and wait to hear from you in a crowded room” could ache with Sia’s delivery, but feel misplaced with Michele’s. Michele is still singing to the back of the room. Sia would sing it to herself. It’s the difference between a performance (even though it’s a good one) and a heart wrenching personal portrait.
It’s the mistake the whole album makes. It isn’t Michele’s fault. She’s stepping into unfamiliar places by recording an album and putting herself in the hands of so many different writers (29) and producers (21). By relying on so many different personalities, though, too much gets asked of Michele. The picture she’s trying to paint is too big, and looking closely reveals gaps in detail.
Michele had a hand in writing two songs on the album, “If You Say So,” and “Cue the Rain.”
“The city was on fire for us
we would have died for us
up in flames
cue the rain…”
It’s the kind of nonsense Michele can make you picture. She’s a cinematic singer, but like most pop stars, she has a big Achilles heel in her delivery. Michele’s happens when singing introspectively.
Britney Spears can pull off mess like “I know my heart’s too drunk to drive,” but Michele can’t. Britney is an introspective singer (stylistically, not effectively). Michele is the polar opposite.
Consider the Lecture Hall Test. If Michele’s at the front of a lecture hall and pointing at you and singing about fire and dying and rain, you’re not looking anywhere else. You’re thinking, this is going to be an awesome semester. If she’s boring holes through you with her eyes while she goes on about her heart getting a DUI, you’re heading to the academic department and hoping the add/drop deadline hasn’t passed.
The best pop singers can sing to the back of the room and to themselves, depending on what the song needs. For all the other faults in her music, Katy Perry’s ability to shift gears quickly and effortlessly is why she dominates the field. She can overcome the kind of lackluster production Michele faces on “On My Way,” “Louder,” “Don’t Let Go,” and “Empty Handed.”
Anne Preven is one of the most constant producers on the album. She’s worked extensively with Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato. These are singers geared toward safe, radio-friendly songs whose direction is decided more by orchestration than by vocal. Michele isn’t suited to that kind of quick, hoppy delivery. She doesn’t know how to follow her instrumentation, and her stage and TV experiences have offered her next to no training in how to do so. She leads the charge; all her experience is in orchestrations being built around her.
Our hope would be for a second album to settle on a more limited field of writers and producers. And maybe that was the purpose of this album – to see who Michele works best with and what direction offers the best musical future.
Our hope? “Thousand Needles” works because Michele’s strong voice lends itself to the instrumental spareness, elongated delivery, and emotional catharsis of R&B. It’s Michele’s best vocal delivery on the album and it’s the only one in which her portamento isn’t brutal, perhaps because the tempo isn’t rushed.
It’s also the only song Ali Payami produces, and one of the few Kuk Harrell has a hand in. Payami is a deceptively clever remixer of club and house music. Harrell has produced for Rihanna, Usher, and The-Dream. He also has a hand in producing “You’re Mine” (pro) and “On My Way” (con). We think he needs more opportunities with Michele.
“Cannonball” is produced by Stargate. When writing this article, we kept e-mailing each other, “You know who should produce for Michele? Whoever did Selena Gomez’s ‘Come and Get It.’”
Turns out that’s Stargate, too. Great minds, people, great minds…
Stargate is a Norwegian production team composed of Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel Storleer Eriksen. Their experience mixing R&B with hip-hop and the electronic nuances of Scandinavian pop lends well to Michele’s strengths, but they rarely produce an entire album.
A cut down lineup of producers Abraham, Braide, Harrell, and Payami would help to focus the direction of the album, with Stargate engineering the intended singles.
As for writers, Sia needs to stay, but this is a no-brainer. She’s one of the most sought-after writers in pop music, and four of Louder‘s best songs were written by her hand. Michele needs to keep hitting up Scandinavia – “Thousand Needles” was cowritten by Tove Nilsson (Swedish pop star Tove Lo) while Stargate helped write “Cannonball.” Michele also needs to take a stronger lead in writing her own material, becoming more aware of the big, sprawling, cinematic metaphors that play to her delivery and the personal, everyday, in-the-moment images she doesn’t perform believably.
Many of the writers and producers we haven’t named here come from a Cyrus/Lovato/Kelly Clarkson/American Idol/America’s Got Talent background. They can’t return. Michele needs to be treated more experimentally – some combination of Broadway, R&B, and Scandinavian pop. Anything country or folk needs to be kept very far away from her.
There’s a clear path forward for Michele’s inevitable follow-up to Louder, which wasn’t necessarily a bad album. It was just one half of a very good album and one half of a soporific disaster. Very few efforts this year so starkly demonstrate the influence that writers and producers have in how a pop album comes together…or doesn’t.
What Went Wrong/What Went Right will be a returning series that puts the emphasis in music criticism on the music itself, and not the celebrity or lifestyle behind it. If you enjoyed it, please check back, and feel free to browse our music video criticism in the meantime.