CD Review of Heroes and Thieves by Vanessa Carlton
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Universal/The Inc.
Vanessa Carlton:
Heroes and Thieves

Reviewed by Jeff Giles


o, that isn’t a typo, pop music lovers – Vanessa Carlton, the ivory-tinkling songstress with the cute-little-girl vocals, has released her new album on The Inc. Records, formerly known as Murder Inc., the Irv Gotti-led label that brought you such sensitive singer-songwriters as Ashanti and Ja Rule. As awkward corporate/artist pairings go, it’s a thing of beauty – the rough equivalent to, say, Debbie Gibson signing with SST in 1990.

Of course, corporate mergers being what they are, Carlton’s move from Interscope to The Inc. is really only a lateral one – both labels are under the Universal umbrella – but still, looking at the logo on the back of Heroes and Thieves, it’s hard not to chuckle and imagine an album full of urban swagger and fat beats…and be somewhat disappointed when the opening notes of the first track and leadoff single, “Nolita Fairytale,” are instead vaguely reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk.”

Any pain felt over the loss of a potentially sublimely perverse batch of songs quickly dissipates, however; Carlton’s third album is unquestionably her best, and even if it probably arrives too late to attract the millions of adorably earnest teenage girls who wolfed down “A Thousand Miles” like it was a grande frappuccino after a jog around the mall, it makes a persuasive case for her as one of the better pop songwriters of her generation.

Carlton’s always had a way with a hook – again, witness “A Thousand Miles” – but on her first two albums, she displayed a bothersome tendency to bite off more than she could chew. Not content with pop gems like “Ordinary Day” or “White Houses,” she frequently wandered into more ambitious (and far more ponderous) territory. During the months leading up to the release of her second album, 2004’s Harmonium, Carlton told reporters she wanted it to be her Sgt. Pepper’s – a noble enough intention, even if the results were more similar to Yellow Submarine – and that album’s commercial failure seems to have sparked a newfound artistic discipline here. The album is longer on hooks, and shorter on notebook-margin unicorn doodling, than anything she’s managed before.

That being said, will the record change your life? Not in the slightest. It goes down wonderfully easy, but it’s hard to imagine these songs leaving much of an impression. Carlton’s baby-doll vocals are both her blessing and her curse – they make it easy for the listener to forgive her for pretentious, asinine lyrics like “I’m a sycophantic courtier with an elegant repose,” but they also deeply limit her sonic range. She could sing the most offensive number from G.G. Allin’s catalog, and all you’d want to do when she was finished is scruff her hair and give her a hug.

Still, as artfully assembled piano-pop records go, it would be hard to ask for more – if Heroes and Thieves were riding on the back of “A Thousand Miles,” it would be easy to imagine three or four of these songs entering the Top 40. That probably won’t happen here, but regardless of how well it performs commercially, the album represents an artistic leap forward for Carlton. Score one for awkward corporate/artist pairings.

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