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Album review: Sara Bareilles, 'Kaleidoscope Heart'

September 7, 2010 |  9:58 am

Bareillescover Sara Bareilles is the friend in the movie. You know, the brunet: bearer of caffeinated beverages, advice and sisterly succor, always around with a wisecrack and an inventive plan to survive whatever wrinkle is afflicting the plot.

The L.A.-based singer-songwriter found success with her 2007 hit “Love Song,” a protest ditty against commercialized pop sentimentality that contained so much cleverness and unflashy sass, it was easy to believe Janeane Garofalo might have ghostwritten it. Following up that breakthrough with her third album of cabaret pop, Bareilles faces the difficult task of maintaining her accessibly supportive persona while moving more securely into the spotlight.

“Kaleidoscope Heart” is certainly lovable, showcasing the down-to-earth emotional side of the 30-year-old songbird in a set that loosely chronicles a break-up while firmly arguing for the kind of practical self-reliance many young women see as the feminist ideal in this post-liberationist age. Though Bareilles takes a semi-confessional approach, her warm alto and hard-working piano arrangements strongly suggest conversation; she incorporates the stops and starts of casual speech into her singing, and she has a way of deepening simple, almost clichéd language just by changing the weight of a syllable.

Whether speaking truth to a boor in the hit “King of Anything” or revving up her own slightly damaged engines in “Bluebird” or “Uncharted,” Bareilles keeps her mood hopeful, structuring her songs as well-paced ascents toward choruses meant to be sung with abandon. “Wish I were pretty, wish I were brave,” she murmurs at the start of “Let the Rain.” Her voice rises in intervals, and by the time the chorus takes over, the key and the mood has changed.

This utopian aspect of Bareilles’s music comes through in the arrangements on “Kaleidoscope Heart,” which swaps out the light rhythm and blues influence of Bareilles’s previous efforts for a sound reminiscent of “Glee.”

The singer-songwriter’s background in university show choirs serves her well here, as she finds strength in complex vocal arrangements and the sorts of dramatic set-ups that have reminded us, through Fox’s popular television show, that the very act of raising our voices can be a hugely liberating act.

—Ann Powers

Sara Bareilles

“Kaleidoscope Heart”

Epic Records

Three stars out of four

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