KELLY CLARKSON RELEASES DEBUT EP, "THE SMOAKSTACK SESSIONS" (REVIEW)

by ALEX NAGORSKI

kelly clarkson smokehouse Kelly Clarkson Releases Debut EP, The Smoakstack Sessions
This week marked the release of Kelly Clarkson’s fifth album, Stronger. But then again, you already know all about that thanks to my good friend Bradley’s stellar review.

Fans who pre-ordered the album from Kelly’s official website were also given the option to treat themselves to her debut EP, The Smoakstack Sessions. Recorded at the Smoakstack Studios in Nashville, the 6-track EP is made up of alternate versions of select tracks from Stronger, a reworking of “If I Can’t Have You” and a cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”

Interestingly, the EP does not include Stronger’s lead single, “Mr. Know It All” or confirmed second single, the anthemic “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger).” And while I was disappointed to not see “Honestly” or “Dark Side” (which I reviewed upon its initial leak in July) make the tracklisting, I’m also appreciative that the EP is shedding a spotlight on some of Kelly’s lesser buzzed about tracks.

I have to admit that as a whole, I actually prefer the EP recordings of these songs to the versions included on Kelly’s albums. Allow me to guide you through each track to explain why.

1. “Hello”
Often times when Kelly performs her music, she downplays the pop element and increases the grunge factor. While on Stronger, “Hello” is a quirky song full of energetic handclaps and infectious pop/rock flavor, here it shines as both a grittier and more soulful track. Removing much of the original’s instrumentation, The Smoakstack Sessions’ “Hello” is the perfect melding of Kelly’s adoration for both rock and blues.

And although this version of “Hello” undergoes the least amount of changes between album tracks and the interpretations of them found on this EP, it still manages to stick out as one of the edgiest cuts from the Stronger era.

2. “The War Is Over”
The same way that Kelly’s acoustic version of her previous hit “Already Gone” took an already pretty song and made it something remarkably gorgeous, this bare version of “The War Is Over” towers over its album counterpart.

On Stronger, Kelly sings this song with a tone of confidence and defiance. Yet on The Smoakstack Sessions, “The War Is Over” becomes a desperate plea in which Kelly is painfully trying to convince herself of the truths she’s singing. Her raw vocals add layers of rasp and honesty missing from the polished album version. Thus, the vulnerability displayed adds a hauntingly gorgeous sense of fragility to the song.

3. “You Love Me”
On Stronger, “You Love Me” is a bouncy and upbeat track that’s fun to bop your head and burst your bubblegum to. This EP version, however, replaces the album’s sunshine infused ‘80s pop sound with aggressively dark rock.

Amplified by minor chord progression, the lyrics of the song don’t just cut you deeper than the version you’re used to – they stare into your eyes as they do so. The rage Kelly was channeling as she wrote the song comes full surface as every “I’m not good enough” is infused with a venomous sting of betrayal.

This brash take on the song may as well be dubbed the “My December Remix” because it’s the first time we’ve heard Kelly truly release the angry rock star out of her pop cage since that album’s release.

4. “The Sun Will Rise”
Sticking to her Texan roots, Kelly has always been a public supporter of country music. Don’t think she has the chops for it? Just listen to her duets with Reba McEntire, Jason Aldean and Rascall Flats or her live cover of Carrie Underwood’s “I Know You Won’t” from her Los Angeles show last week. Convinced yet?

On this reworking of the final track from the deluxe edition of Stronger, Kelly premieres her first true solo country effort. Thankfully getting rid of Kara DioGuardi’s lackluster vocals that are featured on the album version, Kelly’s country tinged voice takes center stage as she croons over the accompaniment of gentle strings and crescendo-ing percussion. The result is not only a testament to Kelly’s wide range and genre flexibility, but will also have you reaching for sweet tea from the rocking chair on your front porch after the first listen.

5. “If I Can’t Have You”
Originally released on Kelly’s fourth album, All I Ever Wanted, “If I Can’t Have You” was a synthesis of pop/rock and dance music in the vein of The Veronicas’ “Untouched.” Yet when she performed it on the “All I Ever Wanted Tour,” Kelly shook the glitter off of the song and drastically slowed down its tempo.

On The Smoakstack Sessions, this stripped version of “If I Can’t Have You” has finally become available for those fans that fell in love with it after seeing Kelly live. In the place of synthesizers is a fusion of electric guitars, drums and even an organ, which significantly enhances the song’s melancholy mood. Vocally, Kelly cranks up her riff dial as she experiments with the song’s melody. The final product is a refreshingly organic spin on an already fantastic track.

6. “I Can’t Make You Love Me”
When Kelly Clarkson covers someone else’s song, it’s always hard to believe that she is not the original musician behind it. Whether she’s singing songs by Aretha Franklin, Patsy Cline, Aerosmith, The White Stripes, Patty Griffin or mashing up Alanis Morrisette with Kings of Leon, Kelly always injects the music with a passionate fervor and makes it uniquely her own.

On this cover of Bonnie Raitt’s classic “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” Kelly sticks true to the original while simultaneously grounding the song for a more contemporary audience. The intimacy and tranquility of Kelly’s sweet and smooth vocals effortlessly evoke images of her recording by candlelight on a cool spring evening. Anyone looking for a reminder of why Kelly was crowned America’s premiere Idol need look no further than here.

PS: If you haven’t already, make sure to enter MuuMuse’s Stronger giveaway! Ends on November 2.

The Smoakstack Sessions EP is currently available exclusively from Kelly Clarkson’s official web store. Stronger was released on October 24. (Kelly’s Official Store) (iTunes)
Originally published on MuuMuse

BEN FOLDS RELEASES 3-DISC CAREER RETROSPECTIVE, THE BEST IMITATION OF MYSELF

by ALEX NAGORSKI
I’ll never forget the first time I heard a Ben Folds song. I was nine-years-old and Titanic had just hit the theaters. It was the second or third week that the movie was out, but already I had seen it four times. The weekend was approaching and I begged my mother to take me to go see it again. Her answer? “Are you crazy?”
Defeated, I retreated to my bedroom and proceeded to flip through every magazine in the house to find pictures of Kate Winslet to add to the collage that was quickly spanning my entire wall. In my angsty, pre-pubescent rage, I turned on the radio, hoping for a little Celine Dion. Instead, Ben Folds Five’s “Brick” began to play.
Immediately, I was drawn in by the somber piano introduction and the melancholy tenor voice that sang above it. I remember putting the scissors and tabloids down so I could devote all of my attention to this music – this music that for some reason was putting the rest of my life on pause. “She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly, off the coast and I’m heading nowhere,” rang the chorus. “Oh my god,” I thought to myself as I began to interpret the lyrics very literally. “This is Jack’s song!”
It goes without saying that “Brick” was not written as Leonardo DiCaprio’s character’s final lament. But the key words I chose to focus on and the undeniable sorrow in Folds’ voice convinced me that this was the musical response to that now iconic scene of Jack floating in the water, sacrificing himself to keep Rose alive.
It wasn’t until years later that I was old enough to understand that “Brick” was in reality a song about abortion. I’ll never forget the moment when I popped in that old mixtape I practically wore out in elementary school and really listened to the lyrics. It was the millionth time that I heard that song, but the first time that I grasped its true significance. Not to say that other songs on the mixtape aren’t classics in their own right–Madonna’s “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” and The Spice Girls’ “Who Do You Think You Are?” But “Brick” taught me something essential about music.
The lesson I learned is that although you may not always be able to relate exactly to the words being sung, you can apply your own narratives to the music you listen to. And even if millions of other people may be listening to the same song that you are, how you interpret it and the feelings and thoughts it triggers inside of you are yours alone.
Through the years, I continued to listen to Ben Folds and treated him as a teacher. His songs were everything to me, educating me about aspects of life I hadn’t yet experienced. Through his music, I learned that one day I would have my heart broken and although I’d be sad about it, I’d be okay. I learned that it was not only alright but that it was cool to be different. Folds’ lyrics demonstrated to me that even though life was full of disappointment, it was something worth cherishing.
Last week marked the release of The Best Imitation Of Myself, a career spanning 3-disc retrospective of Folds’ work from the past 15 years. Highlighting his time in Ben Folds Five and the solo career that followed, this 61-track collection brilliantly weaves together a portrait of a man that legions of fans revere as their messiah.
One of my absolute favorite things about Folds is his dry and sarcastic sense of humor. He’s one of the few artists I know who is consistently able to remain funny in his music while simultaneously singing catchy tunes and telling a story.
On The Best Imitation of Myself, Folds’ humor has never been more front and center. After all, what other musician would include mellowed out covers of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” and Ke$ha’s “Sleazy” on a record that’s supposed to define the premiere (nearly) two decades of their career?
With “Rockin’ The Suburbs,” Folds created one of the catchiest hooks in contemporary pop/rock. “Y’all don’t know what it’s like being male, middle class and white,” he repeatedly chimes in the song’s bridge before crescendoing into screaming profanities. By channeling the socio-politics of the well-to-do, Folds points a finger and playfully laughs at their expense (for more, see also “Levi Johnston’s Blues”).
The Best Imitation of Myself also reveals just how much Folds enjoys sharing the spotlight. Collaborations with artists like Regina Spektor, Ben Kweller, The West Australian Symphony Orchestra and literary figures such as Nick Hornby and Neil Gaiman populate the tracklisting. My personal favorite? The flawless live cover of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper,” in which Folds duets with Canadian singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright.
For this retrospective, Folds reunited with his former Ben Folds Five band members and recorded a series of new tracks, each one sounding like a polar musical opposite of the other. With “Tell Me What I Did,” Folds shows off just how hard he can rock. On “Stumblin’ Home Winter Blues,” he channels a soft folk side that incorporates Bob Dylan-esque lyrics with gentle strings, percussion and his signature piano. And with “House,” Folds has created the most honest pop song of the year, earnestly telling the sad tale of attempting to let go of one’s past against the backdrop of a Lite FM-friendly midtempo alternative rock track.
When Rolling Stone asked Folds about how he selected tracks for The Best Imitation of Myself, he replied: “The excitement about it started when it graduated from being like a ‘best of,’ which anyone can make as a mixtape, to something that had tracks that hadn’t been heard, much less released.”
And that’s part of what makes this collection stand out so much. Usually when artists release retrospectives, they try to cram all of their biggest songs onto a single disc. While you will find all of the Folds standards like “The Luckiest, “Underground” and “Landed” on The Best Imitation of Myself, this is a far cry from a greatest hits album.
Instead, The Best Imitation of Myself serves as a map of Folds’ entire discography, putting up flags in each era of his career. Where the first disc is mostly his hits, disc two is made up entirely of live recordings of fan-favorite songs, the majority of which never saw the light of day as singles. And disc three is composed of previously unreleased demos, live recordings and alternate mixes of album tracks. In other words, fans who have purchased every album Folds has ever put out will still have at least an entire disc’s worth of new content.
Whether you’ve been a fan since day one or are just boarding on the Ben Folds train now, The Best Imitation of Myself is a rare musical treat that not only exemplifies the talent of one of the most prolific artists in the industry, but showcases that at its core, music is one of the most exceptional, beautiful and powerful resources available to us as human beings.
Ben Folds is a true genius. And if you don’t already agree, I promise that one listen of The Best Imitation of Myself will change your mind.

The Best Imitation of Myself is in stores now.