It should have been hard for Vanessa Carlton to trump her instant first hit, 2002's ubiquitous “A Thousand Miles,” a song that helped pave the way for an industry beginning to take a turn away from bubblegum pop, but the singer's new single, “White Houses,” is the kind of song that truly cements a career. Amid a driving beat, piano recital keys, and lush strings, the song tells the story of five girls living together in what is presumably a dance school dormitory or summer camp. The girls play spin the bottle, make out with boys, tell secrets, betray each other, and then reluctantly move on with their lives. Carlton loses her virginity in the backseat of a car—“Cracked leather seat/The smell of gasoline in the summer heat”—and admits, “He's my first mistake.” The song is poignant, bloody, fleeting, and beautiful, much like adolescence.
“White Houses” is the obvious standout on Carlton's sophomore effort, Harmonium, but repeat listens reveal a surprising and consistently engaging, often riveting, collection of songs from start to finish. Carlton's relationship with Third Eye Blind frontman Stephan Jenkins (who also produced the record) is reflected in love songs like “Who's To Say,” in which she has to choose between her relationship and her family, and “San Francisco,” where her love affair with the city is indistinguishable from her attachment to her boyfriend. Carlton's voice has matured since Be Not Nobody, and her vocal performances are a bit more controlled (see “Annie,” with its restrained vocal and soft mellotron sounds). But the album's most surprising moment comes in the form of the hidden track “The Wreckage,” a startling death wish that reveals Carlton's “secret need” for self-destruction: “Dreaming of the sirens/Wishing for broken glass on a highway/It could be so easy.”
From the rollicking piano arpeggios to the classically-influenced melodies, it's impossible not to invoke Tori Amos when discussing Carlton's songwriting, particularly in the last stretch of the album. And where Amos loses herself in abstract loopiness, Carlton often gets caught up in pretty but ambiguous metaphors (see the dreamlike imagery of unicorns and vampires in “Half A Week Before The Winter” and the “dandelions blowing in the wind” of the orchestral “She Floats”). But it just so happens that these are some of the most musically interesting songs on the album, the latter climaxing with a spectacular choir of voices and screams that wouldn't sound out of place on Björk's Medúlla. And while there may not be as many immediate hooks as there were on her debut, she does deliver a bit of pop perfection on the stylish “Afterglow” and the slick “Private Radio,” which unleashes one soaring hook after another. It's intelligent ear candy for those who don't mind a sugar rush.