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Friday, February 22nd
The Critics Corner: Albums
Katharine McPhee- Unbroken
Solid sophomore effort showcases sound change
Name: "Unbroken"
Label: Verve Forecast
Release Date: January 5, 2010
My rating: 3.8 out of 5

Review written by: Stephanie Mora
Now, Katherine McPhee is back with her second album and she is ready to make a brand new name for herself. McPhee's second album Unbroken was released on January 5th, 2010 under a new record label, Verve Forecast Records. There is a dramatic shift in genres from her first album to her second. McPhee sang catchy, pop tunes on her debut album and in Unbroken she belts out more mature sounding songs that are made for Adult Contemporary radio. On Unbroken McPhee sings about the trials and tribulations of life, love, and heartbreak, but draws in the greater message that even through life's struggles, it is still possible to remain strong and unbroken. Her second album offers a more sound and is a better portrayal of her vocal range.

The album, Unbroken starts off strong with the first track, It's Not Right. This song speaks of the fears, doubts and worries that being in love brings a person. It's easy to fall in love but sometimes a person can get more than they bargained for, and in turn begin to question everything. It's Not Right can be described as a power ballad and musically, the piano stands out in this track. The slow drum beats and the occasional, simple guitar chords compliment the piano beautifully. The piano, drums, and guitar together give the melody of the song a very hopeful and magical feeling even though the song is about fear of heart break.

The second track, Had It All is the very first single off the album. A music video was shot for this song and it is included on the compilation album, Now That's What I Call Music: Volume 32. Had It All was definitely a quality single choice for McPhee. It's a mid-tempo track that contains an incredibly catchy chorus and lyrics that will have listeners singing along. You know that popular saying, "you don't know what you've got until it's gone?" Well the second track, Had It All explores the meaning of this very statement. It describes letting go of a comfortable relationship because you are looking for something better and more magical. But afterwards you realize that what you had was perfect. With only the guitar chords and McPhee's voice audible, the song starts off with a beautiful soft and simple tone. Continuing on into the bridge, the guitar is accompanied by the piano which adds to the beautiful tone of the song. In the chorus, the drums come in and are included in the rest of the song. The drum beats start out simple and get more intricate and louder as the song continues, but it's not overpowering.

Moving on to the third track, Keep Drivin' is the opposite of McPhee's single, Had It All. Keep Drivin' is a darker song where the lyrics and melody attempt to set a hopeless tone. Lyrically, the song is strong. It tells a story of a person losing their way. Everyone can relate to this. We all feel like we have lost our way and ourselves at some point in life. The song discusses how a person has lost their way and is just searching for the correct path to take. The lyrics, "Keep on driving down the avenue" are a metaphor for the journey this person has to take in order to find the right path for them. At first, the melody of the song compliments the lyrics just right. The piano, guitar and drums all work together perfectly to create a hopeless sounding melody. Even the addition of backing vocals helps add to the hopelessness. The melody leaves the listeners with the feeling of loss and struggle. Unfortunately, in the chorus the melody shifts to a more uplifting sounding melody. The drum beats pick up speed along with the guitar rhythms and this makes the chorus sound upbeat. It might have been the intention to show at least a shimmer of faith so the song would not be completely dark and sad, but the melody would have been better if it were left sounding hopeless. There is no shift in the lyrics so the upbeat melody of the chorus ends up mismatching the lyrics.

After a bad break up, most of us have regrets and begin blaming ourselves for the problems in the relationship. The fourth track, Last Letter talks about a person realizing that they were not at fault for the end of a rocky relationship. The song is about gaining your pride back after a heart break. The track is set at mid-tempo but picks up to an upbeat sound during the chorus. This particular track even uses an instrument called a shaker. In the song, the shaker creates a percussive sounding beat that is impossible not to bob your head to. At various points, McPhee's voice becomes shaky and sounds almost strained; but with its mature sounding lyrics Last Letter could easily be the break up anthem for women who have had more experience in the field of unfair relationships and let downs.

On track five, the listeners will reach one of the first straight up ballads on the album. Surrender is a song that discusses how sometimes there is more take than give in a relationship. A person is unable to reciprocate great feelings of love towards their partner, which is unfair. So this person is waiting for their heart to surrender to love so they can start giving back more in the relationship. With the heavy usage of piano, this particular track sounds like an imitation of a Norah Jones song and unfortunately Jones does these types of songs better. While the lyrics are beautiful and engage the listener in a story, the notes in the song are not within McPhee's vocal range. Her voice is much better suited for high ranging ballads, and Surrender is a song with a lower range. It's clear that there is a struggle to hit the lower notes because at some points McPhee's voice is inaudible to the point where the lyrics cannot be heard clearly.

Terrified, track six off the album is a duet featuring American singer and songwriter, Jason Reeves. Reeves has co-written for several artists such as Colbie Caillat and Demi Lovato. Reeves actually co-wrote and performed Terrified with Kara DioGuardi (singer, songwriter, record producer, and judge on American Idol), but Katharine McPhee recorded the song for this album. McPhee and Reeves team up to sing this power ballad about finding that one person that leaves you with no worries and no doubts. The song talks about falling so deep in love with someone, and they make you feel so safe that you will never feel terrified again. Listeners don't buy a certain artist's album to hear another artist, so if there is a duet, they want to be amazed. Terrified ends up falling under the category of mediocre. It's not a total disaster but it's definitely not amazing. A positive aspect would be that Reeve's voice doesn't take over the song. The addition of Reeve's is not overpowering; you can still hear McPhee's voice shine. The songs biggest down fall is that McPhee and Reeve's lack chemistry. Both artists have great voices and they do complement one another quite well within the song, but there is no chemistry. Their voices seem disconnected of all real emotion, and the track is supposed to be powerful and emotional.

With track seven, McPhee is able to show off her vocal range and what kind of artist she has become. How is a different kind of power ballad where McPhee brings together the best of both worlds. The song maintains all the characteristics of a good power ballad but it has the infectious, toe-tapping beat of a pop song, without actually being a pop song. The lyrics of the track ask a question, how does one let go of heartbreak and make it through tough times? In the song McPhee describes how everyone says that a person just need to move on, let go and time will heal all, but how is this actually done? In this song the piano, guitar, drums and backing vocals all work together to create the perfect melody for the song. The melody is beautiful and peaceful yet catchy, and it helps set the tone for the song. The melody gives the song a very hopeful tone, like everything will get better. This could easily be an anthem for anyone who is tired of being told how to feel but still wants to keep their faith.

Unlike previous ballads on the album, track eight, Say Goodbye is perfectly executed and offers something different musically. Say Goodbye is about being in a relationship but knowing deep down that it's over and cannot be fixed. It talks about losing not only a great love but also a best friend. This track is a pure ballad. It is slow and soft sounding, only picking up slightly when McPhee raises her voice to hit the high notes in the chorus. Musically, the track does not include guitar solos or drum beats, instead there is a piano and violin. The song is carried by the piano, but the violin played in the background adds in the sad effect and heartbreak of the song. In Say Goodbye, McPhee's voice really stands out and is nearly flawless. Not only does it show off her vocal range but it displays the true emotion behind her voice, like she singing from the heart.

Tracks nine and ten are both acoustic sounding songs without the intention of being acoustic. Track nine, Faultline is about starting over and new beginnings, and the only instrument that you hear throughout the song is the guitar. Even though this song focuses more on McPhee's voice, it's nothing special and much weaker lyrically than the other track on the album. Track ten, Anybody's Heart is very similar to Faultline. It's an acoustic sounding song with only the guitar and a hint of violin in the background, thus placing more emphasis on McPhee's voice. It describes the pain a person feels when they've invested way too much time and energy in a relationship and their heart just ends up broken. While the lyrics are beautiful, like Faultline, the song is nothing special. Tracks nine and ten bring the album to a standstill.

Track eleven, Lifetime had the potential to be a great song and single material but it falls short. This song is about not letting life pass you by; cherish each moment and be happy. The track has a great mid-tempo, catchy beat, that include back up vocalists singing, "ah ah ah ah." All of this creates melody that everyone can drum their fingers too. Even with the catchy melody, and meaningful lyrics, the track falls flat. There is something missing from the song and this could be because the catchy beat it not successfully upheld throughout the entire song. This is not a song that could be played on repeat because after about two listens, the song gets boring and the listener will lose interest.

The twelfth and last original song on the album is the ballad, Unbroken. Unbroken also serves as the title for the album because the story told in this track is also the  message that the entire album ultimately sends. Even through life's hardships, a person can still remain strong and unbroken. The song itself is a ballad that once again, shows McPhee's vocal range. Musically, it's an acoustic song, with only the piano and the violin playing softly in the background.

To end the album, McPhee covers the song Brand New Key. Originally done by Melanie in 1971, it is almost impossible to do the song just like her, for she had a very unique and distinctive voice. Yet, credit needs to be given where credit is due because McPhee managed to hold her own when covering this particular song. She managed to add her own creative flair to the track, making it her own, yet still maintained the fun, carefree, upbeat vibe of the original song.

Overall, Katharine McPhee's album Unbroken is a solid second album. As a whole, this album really portrays who McPhee is as a singer and songwriter, and it displays her true vocal talent that was first seen during her American Idol days. Being signed to a different record label has allowed her to have more creative freedom. The album is definitely not for everyone, though. One of the major downfalls of the album is that every song sounds pretty much the same. With the exception of a few mid-tempo songs, Unbroken is filled with ballads and power ballads. There is no variety. Also, McPhee's shift in genres will most likely disappoint her younger audience that followed her from American Idol, and are used to her singing pop songs like Over It. But McPhee's new album will help to draw in a more mature audience because the album itself offers more mature lyrics.
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