I posted this review on the Sputnik Music site earlier this morning. I was tempted to claim that besides her music, Ingrid Michaelson is best known for helping her vampiric siblings Klaus and Elijah fight off supernatural threats in the city of New Orleans, but somehow it didn't seem appropriate to the tone of the review.
Ingrid Michaelson's Be OK is one of those album's that's neither fish nor fowl. It's classified as a compilation album, and that's technically correct. However, it's not your typical greatest-hits-plus-one-or-two-new-tracks comp. Released in 2008, in part to raise money for cancer research, it's something completely different. Of the album's 11 songs, it includes 3 live tracks, 2 covers and an acoustic reprise of the album's title track. It also just might be the best album Michaelson ever released.
Be OK is Michaelson's third album. Released approximately two-and-a-half years after 2005's successful Girls and Boys LP, Be OK is a musical portrait of an artist on the way up. It entered the Billboard charts at #15, powered in part by its quirky title track, which in addition to charting as a single, found its way into two feature films, The House Bunny starring Anna Faris and The Decoy Bride which starred Doctor Who's David Tennant. It also made it into episodes of TV shows such as 90210, Parenthood and Ugly Betty, and into a number of television commercials as well. As popular as "Be OK" was, however, it's actually one of the album's lesser charms.
Michaelson has several strengths as an artist. The first is that her voice is both distinctive and enjoyable. In an age full of pop divas who like to belt out songs until the veins in their foreheads bulge, and autotuned Disney stars who spend half of their lives lip synching, Michaelson is a relatively rare commodity -- a crooner. Although she's somewhat in the folk tradition, her singing style is more Rickie Lee Jones than Aimee Mann. She's also an excellent songwriter, which is her second strength. And added to these blessings, she seems to know where her talents lie. Consequently, the arrangements on Be OK are quiet and stark, allowing both the vocals and the songs themselves to shine.
There are several highlights on the album. "The Chain" is one of the loveliest songs Michaelson ever wrote. Although she later recorded a studio version for her 2009 album Everybody, its first appearance is here in the form of a live track. A slow, delicate song written to the lover who abandoned her, it's highlighted by a singing-in-the-round chorus, where bandmates Bess Rogers and Allie Moss each echo her as she sings "So glide away on soapy heels/And promise not to promise anymore/And if you come around again/Then I will take the chain from off the door." It's a song of breathtaking beauty, maybe even the best one that Michaelson has ever written.
Only slightly less effective is another slow, delicate number called "Keep Breathing". This one features some graceful piano, as Michaelson laments her inability to effect change in a universe full of horrors: "I want to change the world/Instead I sleep." It's a song tinged with sadness, expressing both frustration and feelings of helplessness that are easy to relate to.
Both of the cover songs on the album are interesting choices. One is a straightforward folk version of "Over the Rainbow", sung in an understated way that would have baffled Judy Garland. The other is a deliberate but earnest live version of the popular ballad "Can't Help Falling in Love". Several other originals are also musical treats. "Lady in Spain" finds her trying on various roles such as that of a Martian who can "unscrew the stars" and a Spanish aristocrat, because "I can be anything that I see." "The Way I Am," on the other hand, is a playful and guileless love song about cherishing the simple things in a relationship: "Cause I love the way you say good morning/And you take me the way I am."
Be OK isn't actually the most popular album Ingrid Michaelson ever put out. Each of her next four albums charted higher, at least in the U.S. I would argue, however, this this album went a long way towards propelling Michaelson to a successful career. And while later releases might have sold more copies, if I was trapped on the proverbial desert island and only allowed to choose one Michaelson LP to pass my lonely days to, this would be the one I'd pick. Almost ten years after its initial release, its straightforwardness and its beauty still continue to give me a great deal of pleasure.
Rating: 4 of 5 stars