Dear American Idol,
Since you’ve been gone, I’ve been thinking about your legacy. Your original premise was to take an unknown talent and usher them into superstardom. Mission accomplished in Season One, but then never again. Sure you discovered a lot of country stars, but so did Nashville Star. You minted a lot of celebrities, but so did YouTube. While you still have a better track record than The Voice, Britain’s Got Talent and X Factor UK have you beat.
Did any bonafide recording artists emerge from the shadow of Simon Cowell’s giant cup of Coke? When it comes down to true originality, innovation, earphoria and albums that will sound as fresh 20 years from now as they did 15 minutes ago, in my book it comes down to four: two guys (Adam Lambert and Blake Lewis) and two gals (Haley Reinhart and Allison Iraheta).
No offense to Kelly, Carrie and Chris who deliver pretty popular, but formulaic albums in their respective genres of belters, crossover country and arena rock. No offense to Jennifer and her Oscar or Katherine and her TV career. No offense to all the country crooners or Broadway cast fillers. I’ve spent the past decade watching which Idols could most likely turn out this generation’s Rumors, Let’s Dance, Supernatural or Jagged Little Pill if the right audience — beyond the American Idol audience — could find em.
Lambert is three solid albums into his run and is nowhere near realizing his full potential as the ultimate showman of our era. Lewis is also three albums in, all of them sonically epic and commercially under appreciated.
Now this is where things get interesting. Let’s hear it for the girls.
Scotty with his bass drop country croon won Season 10, but the real stars of that year were Pia Toscano, Casey Abrams, James Durbin and the beautiful girl with the jazzy rasp from Wheeling, Illinois: Haley Reinhart. She was pretty much a wallflower as the season built speed until she unleashed the growl heard around the world during ‘Piece of My Heart’. From then on, she was the one to watch right up til the end when she finished at #3.
From an artistic standpoint, her debut album, Listen Up, was probably the best-ever from an Idol alumni, alumnus? fuck it — graduate; it was jazzy, soulful, rocking, bombastic and filled with shoulda-been-hits; best of all, it was light on the play-it-safe professional songwriter-for-hire fare that sunk so many Idol’s post show careers. The album did good, about 60,000 units, but not good enough for Interscope to keep her on the roster.
Undaunted, she paired up with Abrams on a few inventive singles and moonlighted (along with Abrams and Lewis) in Scott Bradlee’s Post Modern Jukebox. Wildly retro reinventions of everything from Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ and the White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’ to the Cardigans’ ‘Lovefool’ and Britney’s ‘Oops.. I Did It Again’ helped HayHay bridge the gap until album #2.
Her sophomore album was preceded by a wonderful one-off single, ‘Show Me Your Moves’:
And then just when you thought life couldn’t get better…
Better is a joyous, inventive, master class in songwriting, performance and production; throughout its 11 tracks, pop, rock, jazz and soul are blended into a style that is uniquely her own. Hearing her reminds me of Prince in his genius era — and considering The Artist is my all-time favorite, this isn’t an accolade I give lightly. In the 80s, Prince inhaled musical influences and exhaled a rapidly evolving signature sound, fashion and stage/screen tapestry that was visionary, daring, accessible and addictive. Reinhart is doing the same thing with her art, performance, visual presentation and fashion. Her Jukebox excursions are to her career what Madhouse, the Time and Sheila E’s first albums were to Prince. And just like Prince made a perfect album in Purple Rain and saved the biggest track for last, so to does Reinhart with Better and its closing track, ‘Listen’:
Better is essential listening for fans of Amy Winehouse trying to scratch that post modern neo soul jazz pop itch once again. ‘Behave’ recalls the way Winehouse dabbled in Dap Kings soul and is equally equipped to transcend the jazz club for headline festival gigs (Reinhart was the first Idol to play Lollapalooza). With Winehouse in the clouds and the Zutons on hiatus, Reinhart’s only contemporaries in this sonic arena probably are Sharon Jones and the English soul/funk band, The Heavy (if you’ve only heard their big hit from the car commercial, feast your ears on ‘Sixteen‘). Come to think of it, Haley Reinhart and The Heavy (who just released a great new album as well) would be one hell of a hot double bill, someone get on that.
The only misfire on Better isn’t the inclusion of a cover — her massive hit ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ (200,000 sales; tens of millions in views and streams) — it’s sandwiching the really slow and intimate ballad in the middle of a stellar slate of more up-tempo originals. It’s like one of those jump cut flashbacks to her tenure on Idol, before the utterly amazing ‘Check Please’ sets the modern party back on its proper course.
Allison Iraheta & Halo Circus
Dave Grohl once blasted shows like Idol, saying that (and I’ll paraphrase here to avoid a Wikipedia cut & paste) standing in front of a bunch of judges isn’t the proper way to for a rock and roll band to get going — you gotta rehearse in garages, you gotta suck, you gotta practice, play half empty clubs, hone your sound and build your audience once person at a time. And despite charming the judges in Season 8 and making it into the Final 4 with Adam Lambert and winner Kris Allen, Iraheta eventually followed the Grohlly trail to get to this very moment in time.
Back to our story, after Idol, Iraheta released what I believe to be the greatest rock album ever from an Idol alum, 2009’s Just Like You…
Despite a stack of monsterous potential hits like the power ballad, ‘Scars’, and anthems ‘You Don’t Know Me’ and ‘Don’t Waste the Pretty’ (featuring Orianthi, another beyond talented female singer/guitarist/songwriter who has yet to find her deserved place in the guyville rock scene), the album failed to find a sizable audience and Iraheta was subsequently dropped by Jive Records and 19 Entertainment. Perhaps she was too rock for the tame Idol crowd and too Idol for the jaded rock hipster crowd. For the 103,000+ who picked up the album, and the millions more who likely streamed it, Just Like You remains ridiculously entertaining gem.
Free of the major label suits, Iraheta formed a band, Halo Circus, and gigged up and down the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles in the grand tradition of Guns n’ Roses, Tom Petty and Motley Crue. Their residency at my beloved Hotel Cafe nearly inspired me to move back to the city. An EP followed, along with a sinister cover of Duran Duran’s ‘Do You Believe in Shame?’ before Halo Circus set their sights on recording a proper debut album.
The grand result is Bunny; simultaneously a 100% Allison Iraheta record, and an album that sounds nothing like Just Like You.
Bunny is the band’s make it or break it, nothing yet everything to lose, Appetite for Destruction; you feel the urgency and ambition within every track. Beyond the Joan Jett fronts GnR and/or No Doubt or Paramore awesomeness, there’s a dash of Selena (the transcendent Tejano star, not Ms. Gomez). English and Spanish vocals tango effortlessly throughout the album, honoring Iraheta’s Salvadorian heritage and California upbringing.
Bunny isn’t meant to be a collection of singles, or a mixed bag of killer and filler; it’s a true rock opus, an album mean’t to be heard as a whole, a journey on par with cohesive and ambitious albums by Bowie, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac and the aforementioned GnR. ‘Verdad’ (“true”), ‘Guns in our Hands’ and ‘Band Aid’ are the majestic heart and center of the album, but there’s really not a dud in the bunch. Bunny reveals and rewards with subsequent, louder and louder listens.
While she’s backed by a solid line up of world class musicians, including her husband, bassist and producer Matthew Hager (Duran Duran, Mandy Moore), Iraheta is still the star of the show much like Hayley Williams of Paramore and Gwen when she’s fronting No Doubt. Iraheta is a born lead singer, band leader, front woman and spokesperson.
Despite all the rockers, Bunny closes, oddly enough on a pop note — and two great ones at that. ‘You Can’t Take You Away From Me’ is one of those epic pop masterpieces that woulda filled a stadium with flickering lighters before cell phones came along and ruined all the fun. The last track, ‘Something Special’, was co-written by John Taylor of Duran Duran, a handsome lad who knows his way around a big pop song. Special would actually make a good “buh bye” song for eliminated singers during their farewell montage on American Idol, you know, back when there was such a thing. Idol may be dormant (for now), but with Halo Circus, Iraheta’s career burns as brightly as her signature, flaming red mane.