KELLY CLARKSON GETS “WRAPPED IN RED” FOR DEBUT CHRISTMAS ALBUM

kellywrappedinred_zps322aae99There are two types of people in this world: those who love Kelly Clarkson and those who haven’t been blessed enough to see her light yet.

But thanks to the release of Clarkson’s first Christmas album, the number of unfortunate souls in the latter category is about to shrink rapidly. Hitting stores on Tuesday, Wrapped In Red is that rare record that you know is an instant classic before your first listen is even over.

“I’ve been dying to make a Christmas album,” Clarkson told Billboard for the magazine’s current cover story. “The thing about Christmas is that it almost doesn’t matter what mood you’re in or what kind of a year you’ve had—it’s a fresh start. I’m going to clear the air and take stock of the good that’s happened.”

That feel-good sentiment dominates Clarkson’s sixth studio album. Wrapped In Red also perfectly celebrates the artistic versatility that has made Clarkson one of today’s greatest pop stars. The record finds Clarkson belting out her signature pop/rock sound while also highlighting her country and musical theater talents. Then, of course, there are her unstoppable takes on American standards – something that lent itself heavily to her winning the inaugural season of American Idol eleven years ago.

A collection of brand new songs (all co-written by Clarkson), a breathtaking contemporary cover and an array of gorgeous renditions of Christmas classics, Wrapped In Red has all the makings to be an evergreen holiday season essential. And if your inner Grinch needs a little more convincing, you can tune into Clarkson’s upcoming Christmas special on NBC this December to melt your icy heart. Titled “Kelly Clarkson’s (Cautionary) Christmas Tale,” this one-night (but forever on my DVR) event will feature the singer performing selections from the new album, and will tell a full narrative story—while simultaneously continuing to demonstrate why Clarkson is the gift that keeps on giving.

Wrapped In Red reunites Clarkson with songwriter and producer Greg Kurstin, the man behind some of the singer’s finest tracks on her album, Stronger, and recent single, “People Like Us,” from Greatest Hits – Chapter One. In addition to producing the entire record, Kurstin also co-wrote its lead single, “Underneath the Tree.”

One of the album’s five original offerings, “Underneath The Tree” is that type of smash that comes around once every 10-15 years and immediately becomes a timeless holiday anthem. Not since Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” has a new Christmas song been so explosive, unforgettably catchy and radio-friendly. The sugary, up-tempo track not only guarantees Wrapped In Red’s addition into the holiday album hall of fame, but will also keep the paychecks coming to Clarkson year round for decades to come. I mean, those infectious vocals mixed with sleigh bells, a soaring chorus and a saxophone solo?! You couldn’t go wrong with that formula if you tried.

But while “Underneath The Tree” may be the album’s golden ticket, the other four original songs don’t exactly pale in comparison. “4 Carats” is a cheeky “Material Girl”-esque jewelry wish list that Tiffany’s would be remiss to not use in their next holiday ad campaign. Clarkson’s lyrics are seldom this playful, and the song’s glittery chorus is sure to imprint itself into your shower setlist. “Every Christmas,” a bluesy throwback to the big band era, goes down like a full-bodied glass of red wine by the fireplace. The album’s title and opening track is an adorable ode to new love, and smoothly sets the warm and festive tone for the remainder of the record. And “Winter Dreams (Brandon’s Song),” featuring a 50-piece orchestra and written for Clarkson’s new husband (as of last weekend! Mazel tov!), serves as that fuzzy, romantic fairytale ending to the tumultuous love life that the singer’s been writing about for the past ten years.

Another standout from Wrapped In Red is “Just For Now,” a stunning rendition of a track from Imogen Heap’s immaculate 2005 album, Speak For Yourself. In typical Clarkson fashion, the songstress makes the song completely her own, and the result is the most somber and hauntingly beautiful track on the album. While the lyrics, “it’s that time of year,” are the only blatant qualifying markers for the song’s inclusion on a Christmas record, Clarkson’s equally vulnerable and powerful vocal delivery make it clear that to her, the song is about putting aside differences with loved ones in the spirit of the holidays.

Through her brassy twist on the showtune classic, “My Favorite Things,” Clarkson channels the inner jazz house sensation that she’s previously exposed on tracks like “Walking After Midnight” and “Lies” (from her flawless The Smoackstack Sessions EPs, which I reviewed here and here). This unique and masterful take on the Rogers & Hammerstein staple is sure to give fellow Idol Carrie Underwood a run for her money when she tackles the song in her upcoming starring role in NBC’s live Sound of Music telecast. It also serves as a nice preview of Clarkson’s rumored 2014 Broadway album.

With the exception of two tracks, Wrapped In Red is a largely secular release. The only exceptions come in the form of the chilling, almost mystical “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel,” and the country-tinged rendition of “Silent Night,” featuring mother-in-law Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood.

As far as the classics go, Clarkson takes a fairly conventional approach. There’s of course some of her signature flair sprinkled into places—like a deliciously unexpected octave leap in “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”—but for the most part, the songstress knows that people like to sing along to these songs the way they know them. That being said, I dare you to try to find a more gorgeous version of “White Christmas” or a toastier take on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”

In fact, certain songs sound so authentic and timeless that it wouldn’t be difficult to believe that they were recorded back in the 1950’s and ‘60s alongside their original counterparts. Clarkson’s rendition of the immortal “Blue Christmas,” for example, breathes new life into the country holiday essential, while her energetic spin on Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” effortlessly shows off just how rock-and-roll the singer can be.

Meanwhile, “Please Come Home For Christmas (Bells Will Be Ringing)” feels like you’re watching the heart-tugging climax of your favorite holiday movie. And even though Clarkson’s inevitably angelic vocals make for a nice distraction, the Ronnie Dunn-duet, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” unfortunately remains as date-rapey and uncomfortable as ever…so it, too, is just like you remember it!

While Christmas may still be two months and two other major holidays away, it’s not difficult to be instantly transported into the mistletoe mindset with Clarkson’s new seasonal masterpiece. What else will you find under your tree this year? The answer: it doesn’t matter. With the release of Wrapped In Red, Clarkson has bestowed the greatest possible gift upon all of us.

Wrapped In Red is available for pre-order from iTunes and Kelly Clarkson’s official web store.

kelly-clarkson-2Originally published on PopBytes

EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH BONNIE MCKEE

bonnie-mckeeBonnie McKee is no stranger to the top of the Billboard charts.

Over the past three years, McKee has been responsible for penning nine No. 1 pop anthems and has sold more than 28 million records worldwide. She’s worked with the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, Ke$ha, Adam Lambert, and Kylie Minogue, and her biggest smashes to date include Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me,” Taio Cruz’ “Dynamite,” and a whole slew of Katy Perry’s greatest hits – including “California Gurls,” “Teenage Dream,” “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” “Part of Me,” and the current #1 single in the country, “Roar.”

But earlier this summer, McKee decided to step out from behind the scenes and revisit her dreams of becoming a performing artist. Thus, with the release of “American Girl,” the debut single (available on iTunes) from her upcoming album, the California-born singer/songwriter made the transition from just being the voice behind the lyrics to actually being the voice singing them.

As she prepares for the release of her as-of-yet-untitled album (slated to be released by Epic Records in 2014), McKee chatted with me about the release of “American Girl,” her creative process, her secret recipe for songwriting success, how she plans to balance her performing and songwriting career, and much more!

Congratulations on the success of “American Girl” so far!

Thank you so much! We’re still in the grind so I won’t be happy until it’s gone all the way.

You’re responsible for writing nine of the biggest pop songs of the past few years. Which one would you say is your favorite and which one would you say is your crowning achievement?

Let’s see. Well, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for “Teenage Dream.” That’s a big one for me. But I think my favorite right now is “Roar,” the new one that I wrote for Katy Perry.

You started out as a performer then switched to exclusively songwriting for a little while. Why did you decide that now was the perfect time for you to re-emerge as a performer again?

Well, after I released my first album, I got dropped from my label, and I kind of had to start writing out of necessity. It was always my secret plan to be an artist again, so I just knew that I had to come back ripe with ammunition. I needed to have a story and I needed to catch people’s attention. I was good at songwriting and I hoped that through that, I could get back to being my own artist again.

How indicative is “American Girl” of the sound of your upcoming album?

Very. It’s all very colorful and full of pop anthems. I’m pulling a lot from my influences like Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson. It’s definitely going to be really big and fun!

Do you have a title and/or release date planned yet?

Not yet. I’m still writing. Most of it’s done, but I like to write up until the last minute. You never know, it could be that last song you write that’s a spark of genius and could be the title of the album. So I’m going to wait until I decide what I’m going to call it.

Why did you choose “American Girl” as your re-introduction to the pop world?

Well I felt like “American Girl” was the quintessential Bonnie McKee song. I’m known for my lyrics and big melodies, so I felt like it was very me. I pulled from my own real life experiences and it just seemed like the most obvious choice.

The video for “American Girl” is filled with so many familiar faces. How did you get all of these celebrities to participate?

Most of them are friends of mine. I just sent out a mass text and e-mail. I wasn’t expecting that many people to participate! It was really moving actually. When I got the Tommy Lee video back of him in drag as me flying upside down in the air and playing the drums, I literally was bawling. I was crying. I filmed a reaction video and sent it to him and was like, “look what you’ve done to me, Tommy!” It was just so overwhelming because that song had been on my hard drive forever and no one had really heard it. So for the first people to be hearing it to be these people, and then for them to get so creative with it, was really over the top and overwhelming.

How is your creative process different when writing for yourself versus writing for other artists?

When I’m writing with other artists, most of the time, I have that artist in the room. It’s like a therapy session in a way because I’m picking their brains about what they’re going through and what they want to say. So they share their feelings and I take that and I turn it into a pop song. When it comes to myself, I have to dig a little deeper. I’ve written so many songs in my life that I really have to push myself. There really are so many things to write about in a pop song, so I like to get really creative with my lyrics and try to say something kinda quirky that I don’t think a lot of artists would want to say. So yeah, I’d say I get a little quirkier with my own lyrics.

For the fans that have been following you from the start of your career, will the songs you had featured on your MySpace in between your first album and now ever be available to download or buy?

Yes! There was one song called “Thunder” that got remixed by Rusko – he’s a really awesome DJ. I sent him the acapella and he did this whole thing to breathe new life into it, so that one got kind of a life again. “Stars In Your Heart” may actually make the album. I’m actually planning on making a video for that one either way, even if it’s just for online release. And then I think “Love Spell” will have a new life too. That’s a song that a lot of big names have recorded. A lot of people have wanted that song and I’ve heard so many great, famous voices on it. But I don’t want to give it up! It’s a song that I wrote for myself and is very personal to me, so I’m excited to sing it.

You’ve also written a lot with Max Martin and Dr. Luke, who are pop songwriting legends in their own rights. What’s the best piece of advice they’ve ever given you?

Literally every time I write with them, I learn something new. I always try and let the professionals do their thing and I try to pick up as much as I can. But I think the most important thing I’ve learned is simplicity. It’s easy to try to get overly clever, but I think it’s important to instead just pick and choose the moments where you want to be clever and let the record just be accessible. So yeah, I’d say simplicity is definitely the most important thing I’ve learned from Max Martin and Dr. Luke.

So is keeping it simple your secret formula for writing so many #1 hits?

I guess so. It also helps working with all of these amazing artists and songwriters, so it’s always a collaborative effort. But yes, I think that’s the key – writing a song that people can relate to, even if they don’t speak English. As long as you can sing along to it and still feel something, that’s what works. So phonetics are also really important.

I know you yourself weren’t present at the VMA’s this year, but what were your thoughts on the mob of redheads who were all chanting your name on camera?

I thought it was amazing! It was so cute. I didn’t even know that was coming, so when I saw it, I was like, “Oh my god!” It was quite a surprise. It was really cool. It’s awesome to know that you can have a Bonnie McKee costume – and the fact that it’s recognizable is really awesome. It really warmed my heart.

That must have been a really big moment for you!

Yeah! It was a big moment for me. It was one of those moments that I was like, “oh my god, this is really real,” so it was pretty cool.

Speaking of the VMAs, what was your favorite performance of the night?

There were some really good ones! It was a really exciting year this year. I feel like the past couple years have been pretty dull. I really enjoyed Lady Gaga’s performance because she always brings 110%. And of course, Katy. She’s always great. It’s always exciting to hear the songs that I wrote being performed. Every time I’ve seen someone perform a song live that we wrote together, I cry. Every single time. I’m a big cry-baby. So that’s always exciting. And of course, Bruno Mars.

It must be really interesting to see all the visual narratives and choreography and production value added to the performances of these songs that you wrote and seeing how all those things play out on stage together.

Yeah, it’s really cool! I’m always excited to see the music videos too because I feel like every time I write a song, I have a video for it in my head. I’m always imagining what the video for the song would look like. That’s kind of how I write, so it’s always fun to see how they turn out.

As a co-writer of “Roar,” what is your response to the allegations that the song sounds too similar to Sara Bareilles’ “Brave”?

Yeah, I heard about that. It’s funny because people forget that we wrote this song months ago. We wrote the song before “Brave” came out and I had never actually heard it. Then when I listened to it, I was like, “oh yeah, I guess that is kind of reminiscent,” but it’s a total coincidence. I had never heard the song before and I think it’s a great song, by the way. I love Sara. I think she’s so talented. And it happens all the time. I hear stuff on the radio that I’m like, “what?! I just wrote something like that!” but there’s no way that anyone could have copied that because nobody in the world’s ever heard it. But it’s just kind of something that happens and I think it happens all the time.

Will we be hearing more of your songs on Katy and/or Britney’s upcoming albums?

Yeah, I wrote 4 songs on the new Katy album, Prism. I’m really excited about those. We really had a lot of fun writing them together. They’re really different and fun. She likes to get experimental so they’re kind of a departure from her last album that I worked on with her. As far as Britney, I don’t know. If they call me, I’ll definitely do it. It’s always so exciting to hear an iconic voice like Britney’s singing the words that I’ve written.

That actually leads in nicely to my next question –  Do you ever get nervous or star-struck when collaborating with artists of that caliber? For instance, I heard you wrote a song on Cher’s upcoming album. That must have been quite an experience!

I know that Cher recorded a song that I wrote and that was really exciting, but I don’t know if it made the final cut of her album or not. That happens a lot – where the artist will record like 45 songs and they’ll pick the best from those, so I have no idea if she’ll be using it or not. But either way, it’s an honor to have her voice singing my song. She’s just an idol of mine. But yes, absolutely, I get nervous. Britney Spears is someone I grew up listening to and idolizing and watching and studying, so to see her in the flesh and to hear her voice was just really surreal. I’ve gotten to meet all kinds of people – like Steven Tyler was a big one for me. I got to sing for him and he got to sing for me, just me and him and a piano, so I’ve had tons of amazing experiences. It’s been very rewarding being behind the scenes.

What’s one song from the past year that you didn’t write but wish you had?

Hmm … “Call Me Maybe” is maybe 2-years-old now, but I wish I wrote that one. From top to bottom, it’s just a perfect pop song. There are no holes, no questions about it. It’s just a perfect pop song. And Carly Rae [Jepsen] is a total sweetheart.

After your album is released, how do you plan on balancing your career as a songwriter and your career as a popstar?

Well I’m fortunate in that I’m able to pick and choose who I want to write for and what I want to do. But I think for now, I’m an artist. It was always my #1 goal to be on stage and to be able to move people with my own voice and have that experience of sharing my music with people. There’s just nothing like that. So I think I’m going to focus more on my own artist project. As far as songwriting stuff – I’ll do things that I can’t say no to. If Katy calls, I’m not going to say no. If Britney calls, I’m not going to say no. If Cher calls, I’m definitely not going to say no.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about your album or any of your upcoming plans that we didn’t talk about?

I don’t think so! I guess just buy the “American Girl” single on iTunes!

bonnie-mckee1Originally published on PopBytes

KELLY CLARKSON RELEASES FOLLOW-UP EP, “THE SMOAKSTACK SESSIONS, VOL. 2”

This year, Kelly Clarkson celebrated her tenth anniversary in the music industry.

To commemorate this milestone, the singer released Greatest Hits – Chapter One, a compilation of her most commercially successful songs, as well as a handful of new tracks (including the current single, “Catch My Breath”). Yet while this release does a good job of showing off Clarkson’s confectionery pop star persona, it misses part of what has made her such an interesting musician over the years: her multifaceted artistry and genre defying and boundary-less talent.

That’s exactly what’s on display in The Smoakstack Sessions, Vol. 2, an EP released exclusively via Clarkson’s official webstore in tandem with Greatest Hits – Chapter One. The second installment of the singer’s wildly fan-favorite series of EPs recorded at The Smoakstack recording studios in Nashville (check out my review of volume 1 here), volume 2 is a diverse compilation of songs that Clarkson covered during her All I Ever Wanted tour in 2009.

Acoustic and stripped down, these EPs expose sides of Clarkson that are not often heard on her albums. Below, I break down The Smoakstack Sessions, Vol. 2 track-by-track.

1. “I Never Loved A Man”

The last time Kelly Clarkson released an Aretha Franklin cover, she was a quirky 19-year-old girl competing on the first season of American Idol. On that show, she took on the Queen of Soul’s “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and would subsequently go on to be named the reality show’s first winner.

Yet on Idol, Clarkson’s performances were heavily tailored as a way to showcase her vocal pipes rather than who she was as an individual artist. She had to convince voters that hers was the most powerful voice by always displaying it at its largest, and could thus not only fill an amphitheater, but also shake the seats inside it.

It’s so rewarding, then, to hear Clarkson revisit Franklin’s repertoire a full decade later. This time around, the songstress is not gunning for a crown. And rather than trying to simply emulate Franklin, she is unafraid to tackle this classic material and inject it with her own unique signature style.

Recorded with Questlove, Clarkson’s version of Franklin’s 1967 hit, “I Never Loved A Man,” is a significantly grittier counterpart to its original. Over the years, Clarkson has trained herself to employ the huskiness in her voice as one of the most valuable tools on her belt. On this track, she marries her rasp and her belt to both wink at the song’s bluesy roots while giving it an edgier rock & roll quality. The result is a stunning tribute that feels relevant, contemporary, and refreshingly original.

2. “Your Cheatin’ Heart”

Sticking true to her Texan upbringing, Clarkson has long flirted with the idea of releasing country music. She’s already re-released country makeovers of two of her singles (“Mr. Know It All” and the Reba McEntire duet, “Because of You”), and sang a number of times at the Country Music Awards – including performances of “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” her collaboration with country star Jason Aldean, and “Don’t Rush,” a duet with Vince Gill that serves as one of the new tracks found on Greatest Hits – Chapter One.

“Your Cheatin’ Heart” is a cover of one of the crown jewels in country legend Hank Williams’ legacy. A midtempo bluesy-folk story about an unfaithful lover, the song is orchestrated by a hearty dosage of horns that enhance Clarkson’s honey-smooth vocals. The song is the type of classic country that influenced the nostalgic Americana sounds of contemporary bands such as Mumford & Sons and She & Him, while also being slightly fused with sultry Judy Garland-esque theatricality. Once again, Clarkson breathes new life into a genre standard in a way that favorably spotlights her musical versatility and adoration for her craft.

3. “Walking After Midnight”

While “I Never Loved A Man” showed off her soulful side, Kelly Clarkson’s smoky jazz bar singer alter ego has never been so alive as on her cover of Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight.”

Another personal favorite of Clarkson’s from the 1950s, “Walking After Midnight” is a gorgeous blend of blues guitar, bass, electric organ and a foot-tapping snare beat. Her raw vocals provide such a strong sense of intimacy that it makes it easy to close your eyes and picture her singing the song while standing in front of you (uber-fans! Pun alert!).

It is on this track that Clarkson is at the very top of her game. Her astounding control over her voice mixed with her sexy nightclub crooner attitude serve as a master-class in jazz performance. Rarely has Clarkson sounded simultaneously so emotional and confident, making “Walking After Midnight” an absolute must-have in any fan’s collection.

4. “That I Would Be Good/Use Somebody”

Mashing up two songs that were released a full decade apart may sound like a sonically risky task, but Clarkson has never been one to turn down a musical challenge. This is, after all, a woman who has covered everyone from Aerosmith to Mariah Carey to Eminem.

Capturing the vulnerability of Alanis Morissette’s “That I Would Be Good” (1998) and the somber anthemic quality of Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” (2008), Clarkson’s soaring vocal range takes center stage to deliver a powerhouse performance. The singer’s rock star persona becomes dominant, as she toys with a Pink-like rasp over the clashing of electric guitars and driving percussion.

Clarkson has always had a badass rock chick locked deep inside of her – it’s just rare that her label lets out that part of their all-American girl pop star. But when she’s set loose, it’s always the most indulgent treat a Clarkson fan can get.

5. “Lies”

On the first four tracks of The Smoakstack Sessions, Vol. 2, Clarkson sang four different genres of music: soul, country, jazz, and rock. It makes sense, then, that to close out the EP, she would tackle one more: indie rock. In a decision that would make every open mic night stage in Williamsburg scream “not again,” Clarkson’s last song on the release is a cover of The Black Keys’ “Lies.”

On another incredibly intimate recording, her vocals are as organic as her delivery is passionate. Combined with the way she maintains the Amy Winehouse-inspired funk sound that ties the whole EP together, “Lies” is another tour-de-force from the multi-talented Clarkson. It’s a song that’s perfect for both the coffeehouse and for quiet nights at home with a glass of red wine.

With any luck, this song – and entire release – is our first taste of a more mature Clarkson’s future musical direction. And while Greatest Hits – Chapter One serves up Clarkon’s biggest chart smashes, The Smoakstack Sessions, Vol. 2 paints a portrait of an artist who is far more complex than your average pop star. The entire record serves as a testament to the singer’s musical expertise and vocal brilliance. Do yourself a favor and pick up your copy now.

Originally published on MuuMuse

REVIEW: KATY PERRY’S “PART OF ME”


Last weekend at the 54th annual Grammy Awards, 27-year-old diva Katy Perry debuted her new single, “Part of Me.”

Continuing her Diet Lady Gaga wardrobe choices, Perry squeezed herself into a gold and silver spandex suit she received courtesy of a pile of rejected Power Rangers costume designs that her assistant had to sell his soul to acquire. And in case we forgot that she played a principal role in the cinematic train wreck that was The Smurfs, Perry kindly wore the blue wig that was distributed at the film’s wrap party as a reminder. And, thus, the world was introduced to “Part of Me.”

Although a demo version of the track has been floating around the blogosphere for over a year, the official release of “Part of Me” is timed to the upcoming re-release of Perry’s 2010 record-breaking album, Teenage Dream. And in a stroke of marketing genius, the release of this defiant breakup anthem is also timed perfectly to the very public divorce Perry is currently going through with British comedian Russell Brand. Think Nick Lachey’s “What’s Left of Me” but with bigger boobs and more cotton candy.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not Perry’s biggest fan. I find her music to be everything from incredibly irritating to unoriginal to perpetuating terrible stereotypes to horrendously insensitive. Let us not forget that this is a woman who while married to a recovering alcoholic, put out a single about how much fun it is to black out on weekends. And then continued to show her support by releasing a remix of the same song to try and make even more money off of this concept.

Admittedly, I longed for “Part of Me” to be a disaster. I wanted it to be so bad that people would stop buying Perry’s records and she would just vanish from the charts and go back to Candyland to retire already. So imagine my disappointment upon first hearing the song and realizing that it’s the best one Perry has ever released.

On “Part of Me,” Perry trades in her signature mindless and sugarcoated fluff in favor of attitude and grit. Simply put, it’s the best Ashlee Simpson song that Ashlee Simpson never recorded. Listening to it, one might even be tricked into believing that Perry actually has a personality.

What makes “Part of Me” such an automatic smash for Perry is in large part due to the fact that much of the team behind it are people responsible for some of Britney Spears’ biggest hits. Produced by Dr. Luke (who not so subtly borrowed his own beats from Britney’s “Till The World Ends”), the song is co-written by Max Martin (Britney’s “Baby One More Time”) and Bonnie McKee (Britney’s “Hold It Against Me”), in addition to Katy herself. With a roster like that, it’s hard to imagine the track would be anything but guaranteed dynamite. And that’s precisely what it is.

“Part of Me” is also everything a successful contemporary breakup song should be. It’s layered with an unapologetic I’m-so-much-happier-without-you theme, an upbeat Kelly Clarkson-esque power pop/rock hook, and most importantly, self-empowerment.

“Now look at me I’m sparkling, a firework, a dancing flame. You won’t ever put me out again, I’m glowing. So you can keep the diamond ring, it don’t mean nothing anyway. In fact you can keep everything except for me,” Perry triumphantly declares in the song’s bridge before re-entering the fist-pumping chorus. “This is the part of me that you’re never gonna ever take away from me, no. Throw your sticks and stones, throw your bombs and your blows but you’re not going to break my soul.” Sounds like someone’s recently gotten their claws sharpened.

FUN FACT: The lyrics to the bridge originally read, “You can keep the dog, I never liked him anyway,” but were changed to “You can keep the diamond ring, it don’t mean nothing anyway” because …. well, you know. Sorry, Russell.

While “Part of Me” is by no means groundbreaking, it’s the perfect spice to add some much-needed substance and flavor to Perry’s repertoire. It’s almost hard to believe that a song as well constructed as this one comes to us from the same “artist” who gave the world “I Kissed A Girl,” “California Gurls” and “Peacock.”

A friend recently said to me, “it’s good to betray your principles from time to time. Doing that reminds you that you have them.” With that sentiment in mind, I put Katy Perry’s new single straight to the top of my cardio playlist – and immediately hated myself for having fueled the beast. But nothing burns more calories than self-loathing set to the beat of an excellent pop song.

Originally published on PopBytes

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