Lea Michele - Louder Review
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 03.04.2014
Glee star Lea Michele makes her major-label album debut with Louder! But does her album stand up to the mainstream pop heavyweights, or does the Broadway-trained diva have a voice that's not right for radio? 411's Jeremy Thomas checks in with his full review!
1. "Cannonball" (3:35)
2. "On My Way" (3:45)
3. "Burn with You" (3:38)
4. "Battlefield" (4:18)
5. "You're Mine" (3:38)
6. "Thousand Needles" (3:24)
7. "Louder" (3:50)
8. "Cue the Rain" (3:59)
9. "Don't Let Go" (3:16)
10. "Empty Handed" (4:51)
11. "If You Say So" (4:15)
Of all the actors and actresses to have their stars made by the television phenomenon that was Glee, Lea Michele's star has shone the brightest. The Broadway-trained stage actress has broken through to become a well-known name thanks to her role as Rachel Berry on FOX's musical comedy, a name that she is expanding in both acting and music. With roles in films like 2011's New Year's Eve and the upcoming animated Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return she appears set to be gracing screens well past Glee's expiration date next season. And she has been pushing her music career as well. Bolstered by several high-charting hits during Glee's heyday, she began recording her debut studio album in 2012. That album, Louder, makes its bow today with hopes of making her a two-industry star.
For her first mainstream music LP, Michele is seeking to establish herself as an artist and not just someone who sings covers of well-known pop songs. In doing so, she has made an album that, to be completely honest, will likely not thrive on radio. The material on Louder is mainstream pop, but it is mainstream pop from several years ago. To be fair, there is certainly a contemporary feel to it; a good example of this is "Cannonball" which contains the EDM beats and mid-tempo sound, the proper anthemic quality. But there's something immediately distinguishing this from numbers like Katy Perry's similarly-themed "Roar." That something is a sense of authenticity and earnestness, and that's what makes it feel like a throwback of sorts; it comes from a time when the word wasn't sullied by the likes of Taylor Swift until it's become a patronizing, back-handed compliment at best. What's more, Michele's voice rings clear and true. It doesn't sound electronic and AutoTuned the way that its contemporaries do, and in a way that almost seems odd compared to what we're used to at this point from mainstream pop. It's a strange but welcome change to hear the clarity in Michele's voice and know that it's real and not tweaked into the uncanny valley of musical perfection.
That earnestness plays its way through the whole of the album and what's more, it feels like a personal album. This is a surprisingly difficult thing to do with pop music. When Britney Spears said she was giving us an intimate and personal look at her for example, we got Britney Jean which includes the likes of "Work B***h." This album is actually personal and of course, that touches on the tragedy of her life that occurred last year when her longtime boyfriend and Glee co-star Cory Monteith died of a heroin overdose. The pain of that lost is prevalent on Louder; you can feel it in songs like "Burn With You" where she sings, "I don't wanna go to Heaven if you go to Hell/I will burn with you." Obviously the lyric is metaphorical but it contains a tragic overtone considering his passing.
The personal aspects do have a limit, but they are not in emoting but instead in lyrical content. The eleven tracks on Louder were mostly not written by Michele; like many pop artists she selected songs written by others to work with her. Among her most prominent songwriters was fellow aspiring pop star Sia Furler, who co-wrote four of the eleven tracks including "Cannonball." Furler and Michele are a good combination, and they produce some of the best songs. "Battlefield" is a ballad that tells the tale of a love gone wrong; conversely "You're Mine" is a less bitter, more sweet song with a catchy rhythm in the chorus and Michele's voice opening up in the chorus. The last of her songs with Sia, "If You Say So," was one of the songs that Michele co-wrote and it is specifically inspired by her reaction to Monteith's passing. It's emotionally vulnerable in a way that you don't often hear from pop artists, opening with a gentle piano and strings arrangement as she sings with an ache in her voice, "It’s been seven whole days, seven whole days/since you paralyzed me." It shows that while she is good at singing songs she chose from other people, she's also got a potential talent for writing her own.
This isn't to say that Louder is a truly great pop album. It's competent and it's enjoyable, but its biggest problem is that, quite simply, it doesn't manage to stand out on its own. Michele chose producers like Stargate and Sir Nolan for the songs and they imbue a pop sound that works just fine, but it doesn't quite linger. A good example of that is the title track, which is just a little too airplay-friendly and would easily blend into the pack. This is the one song where she isn't able to rise above the production values and her voice gets buried amongst them, while the lyrics lack that personal touch which allows the other ones to work. "Don't Let Go" is another example, an unremarkable pop number that is drowned in EDM synth and a dance beat with nothing to really catch the heart strings and send then soaring. Neither song is necessarily bad, but they seem out of sync with the rest of the album.
Fortunately for Michele, those tracks are rarities and more often than not the songs work or excel. This is easily listening for the most part; it isn't challenging but it is inspiring and evocative. On "Empty Handed" she slows it down a bit and delivers something that sounds a little more reminiscent of the alt-pop singers of the mid-1990s; it stands out from the rest of the album quite nicely. Other tracks like "On My Way" contain just a hint of that sensibility; it's one that Michele would be wise to cultivate perhaps a bit more so she doesn't get lost in the crowded dance-pop field. All in all, Louder is a competent debut album but it doesn't quite soar the way that Michele clearly wanted it to.
Standout Tracks: "On My Way," "Burn With You" "You're Mine," "If You Say So"
Skippable: "Louder," "Don't Let Go"
The 411: Lea Michele hits a good groove on Louder, even if she doesn't soar quite as high as she wants. In establishing her sound, she struggles a little bit with differentiate herself from the dance pop prevalent on radio play but the times that she does are excellent songs. Her voice is a thing of beauty and it's enough to keep things shining brightly during a couple muddy moments, and her ability to open up and show vulnerability makes this a surprisingly personal and intimate album. Louder won't turn Lea Michele into a breakout pop superstar, but it's a damned good start.