Funny what a difference a year makes.
Back in February 2007, I was putting together a piece for Bullz-Eye called “The Best Albums You’ve Never, Ever Heard (Well, Probably Not, Anyway),” and on my personal short list on possible inductees was Carly Hennessy’s Ultimate High, released by MCA Records in 2001. As it happens, however, the album never ended up making it into the final piece, mostly because Carly never got around to filling out the short Q&A that everyone else had done, and it would’ve looked lopsided without it. I followed up about a week after my initial request, and she responded, “I will do it tonight. Sorry, I had family in town, and I have been so busy with them that I didn’t have time.” Fair enough, but as the deadline for the piece approached, I still hadn’t gotten her responses, and since I didn’t want to be a nag, I saw no need to follow up a second time.
In retrospect, perhaps I should have. Now, Carly Hennessy is known as Carly Smithson, and she’s one of the final 12 contestants on the current season of “American Idol.”
There’s something ironic about the fact that I was first inspired to purchase my copy of Ultimate High because of an article which originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal (but appears here via a posting on Matt Goyer’s blog) which spoke of how few copies of the album had been bought. It’s a painful yet fascinating read, but certain facts really leap out at you, including…
* MCA paid for her living expenses for two years.
* They also gave her a blue convertible Volkswagen Golf to drive around in.
* They sent a surprise limo to take Carly and her friends to a Blink-182 rock concert to celebrate her 18th birthday.
…but what it really boils down to is this: the label spent $2.2 million to make and market the album – including $250,000 on a video that showed her dancing in a disco and jumping around with her pals in their sleepwear – but, after three months, it had sold precisely 378 copies.
Although the story of Carly Hennessy’s complete mishandling by MCA was clearly a tragic one, I have to be honest: I left the article completely psyched to buy the album because it had been touched by the hand of Gregg Alexander, a.k.a. the man behind the New Radicals. I loved their lone album, Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed, Too, and I couldn’t get enough of his songs, so when I heard that he and another one of his cohorts, Danielle Brisebois, were all over Ultimate High, I was out the door and on my way to the record store.
I picked up the disc, slapped it into the CD player, and within seconds, I was smitten.
If you’ve ever heard any other songs that Alexander has written, you instantly know they’re his handiwork – have you ever heard “I Can’t Deny It,” the song he wrote for Rod Stewart? – and that was clearly the case with the album’s first single, “I’m Gonna Blow Your Mind.” Indeed, there are several tracks on the record that Alexander either wrote or co-wrote, including “Surface Wound,” “You’ll Never Meet God (If You Break My Heart),” “No-One’s Safe From Goodbye,” “Young Love,” “I Need A Little Love,” and…well, hell, I don’t really need to go on, do I? Clearly, the guy’s fingerprints are all over the damned thing. In fact, there’s only one song that doesn’t involve either Alexander or Brisebois – “All Kings of People” – but as if to say, “Yeah, but even that track is cool,” that track is straight out of the Tuesday Night Music Club, having been co-written by Sheryl Crow, the late Kevin Gilbert, and Eric Pressly. It’s really just a fun pop album, through and through.
So why, then, was it such a God-awful flop?
I couldn’t say. Maybe it’s because the first single sounded fluffy and Radio-Disney-friendly on the outside but was actually an ode to oral sex, leaving MCA with no idea where to push it. It can’t be because the world’s love affair with Gregg Alexander’s songs was over, because he promptly went on to give Santana and Michelle Branch a huge hit with 2003’s “Game Of Love.” But whatever the case, all the complaints from people that Carly shouldn’t be allowed on “American Idol” because she’s already an established singer are clearly ridiculous because, c’mon, 478 copies does not equal a successful music career. Give the kid another shot, that’s what I say.
Mind you, I can’t say I’ve been tuning in to “American Idol” on a regular basis even with Carly’s inclusion among the finalists. I just don’t get into the show. But I’ve regularly been reading various blogs around the ‘net, and it seems like a lot of people think she could go all the way. Still, on the whole, I suspect that Ultimate High might’ve been lightning in a bottle as far as my love affair with Carly. Yes, she received a songwriting credit on most of the songs, but, c’mon, when the songs sound almost exactly like the existing work of her collaborators, I think it’s reasonable to be a little skeptical about what she herself brought to the material. But I loved it so much that I’m always going to be willing to give her a chance.
And, okay, if she makes it to the final four, I’ll even call in and vote for her.
UPDATE: Okay, I suddenly realized that I teased you with the comment about Carly’s video, only to not link to it. Well, it was my faux pas to not even think about doing so, but now that I’ve got hunting on YouTube, I find that there’s no video matching the description of the one mentioned in the article. Even the official video as posted by Universal Music doesn’t match up. Can we presume that it was destroyed upon its initial lack of success, only to result in MCA spending even more money on a brand new one? Sounds about right to me. But, anyway, here’s the video that’s on YouTube, if you’re curious…