Wednesday, July 24, 2002
Here's a thought: is Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles" influenced by chart-pop and R&B? Ostensibly not - Vanessa's sort of the Sarah McLachlan to Michelle Branch's Alanis Morissette, leading the teenagers back to the homeland of authentically emotional quasi-alterna-pop. It's all there: the Tori-like piano fillagree, the Suzanne Vega circa "Luka" catch in her vocals, the blatantly anti-sexual slant to Vanessa's yearning. Anti-pop critics will tell you that the influence chart-pop has wielded here is to have so sufficiently moved the goal posts that the heavily orchestrated MOR-pop of "A Thousand Miles" sounds like a real alternative.

And yet, I dunno, for me "A Thousand Miles" feel closer to "Born To Make You Happy" and "If You Come Back" than it does to anything else around right now. There's that same pre-relationship idea of love - love as a lifeforce that has no definition except the space its absence creates. I say "pre-relationshi"p because it's an ideal of love that carries greater weight when love has hitherto only been imagined (I wrote my article on "Born To Make You Happy" a matter of weeks before entering into the world of relationships; I knew the ideal was a false one then, but I believed it to be true nonetheless). As such the song appeals to me, touching the original imprints left behind by subsequently moderated ideals - songs like these tear me up with the memory of the resonance they would have had not so long ago. Vanessa imagines falling into the sky because that's what love is like for the young and untried: an escape into wide expanses from the claustrophobia of small emotions. I don't necessarily think that Vanessa doesn't understand relationships though. More likely, she's working back to the same place in her performance that I do when I listen.

And anyway, what Vanessa thinks is hardly relevant, because with "A Thousand Miles" it's all about the voice. Four years ago Vanessa's sunny NYC husk would have annoyed me due to over-exposure. Now, immunised via the reflective gloss of R&B melisma, Vanessa's trembling, throaty coo sounds improbably unusual - as if I didn't have an entire back-history of adolescence listening to this stuff. But essentially it's the same trick that Britney used on "Born To Make You Happy", transforming the idiosyncratic weakness that the singer-songwriterly female vocalist has exploited for decades into a series of classically ordained modulations (along the verse-chorus-bridge-climax template) that's always been the domain of pure pop.

This is rarer than you'd think at first instance. Close attempts like Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" fail because the singer is too distinctive; in contrast, pop's professional balladeers, whether it's Whitney or Paula Abdul or Celine Dion or even Janet Jackson, have all aimed first and formost for some level of technical perfection (some achieve more success than others) and as a result their pain is voiced, incongruously, from a position of strength. Britney and Vanessa meanwhile balance the competing urges, allowing imperfections to shine through only when they will actually enhance the attraction of the pop template. "Born To Make You Happy" and "A Thousand Miles" are power-ballads shouldered by desperately compromised Celines. And maybe this is part of what makes them so irresistible. Vanessa knows when to falter and when to hold firm, when to soar and when to fall back, with an enviably natural-sounding craft.

And of course living through the years of future-pop makes one more sensitive to the stylistic nuances of even such classicist throwbacks as the arrangement used here. "A Thousand Miles" does have that similarity to "Falling" - it argues that modern pop can still be based around something as traditional as the piano, and more, that these instruments can still be as delectable as a syncopated beat or Indian flute loop. "A Thousand Miles" beats "Falling" because Vanessa sounds both more accomplished and less pretentious than Alicia Keys, her gossamer thin piano tinkling and riffing strings less eager to stifle the melody in self-conscious worthiness than Alicia's portentous classical figures and stiff drum machine. Certainly "A Thousand Miles" is maybe a little too bombastic, but it doesn't put me on guard. Rather, its grand, foolish gestures evoke the fondness of memory, perhaps because I'd imagined myself in Vanessa's place many times before I heard her.


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