HuffPost Reviews: Kelly Clarkson All I Ever Wanted / Gin Blossoms Playlist Your Way

Kelly Clarkson - All I Ever Wanted

Kelly Clarkson, what have you done. You've gone and turned in one tight little pop album that should get all of your American Idol cousins (except Chris Daughtry) a wee-bit green-eyed. Right from the opening guitar riffs of the megahit "My Life Would Suck Without You" (ours too, Kelly), we are hooked on your poppy, essential album that features tons of likely chart shredders that we happily will be burnt out on by Summer's end. Unlike what went down on your moody My December (that now deserves a revisit and a personal apology from each maligner), your energy level is spiking again, and you prove Simon Cowell correct when he once stated on Good Morning America that your pipes were better than your fellow Idolsters "by a mile" (okay, that was years ago, but still...).

At various times, All I Ever Wanted rocks, discos, serenades, and invokes several decades of music, often in the same song. But Kelly Clarkson's cast of producers--including Dr. Luke, Howard Benson, Louis Biancaniello, Sam Watters and Ryan Tedder--direct this sonic pageant with an eye on 2009's charts, and the team had quite an auspicious start with the album's first single. Where Britney Spears' phenomenal "Womanizer" set the record for giant leaps to the number one position, this album's lead-off "single" (however we're defining that this week) reset the bar. "Suck"'s vocals on this Clarkson co-write are some of the strongest we've heard from the singer, but one of the secrets to this pop-rockin' phenomenon also could be its chorus' channeling of a melody from Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" (and, for the minutia-minded, the first line of its verses sounds like a brief nip of Dar Williams' "Spring Street").

The extremely hooky chorus of Clarkson's "I Do Not Hook Up" explodes with a girl group unison sing-a-long ala the Go-Gos and the Bangles, and its message is a cross between "sober-up before you touch me, dude," and "don't rush me, I like to take it slow." When the song's lyrics weirdly visit Stephen Stills' "Love The One You're With," Clarkson uses those exact words to communicate something akin to, "Honey, you ain't gettin' nothin' better, don't even bother" (hey, these are top forty anthems, not Shakespeare). She's not gettin' all Queen Latifah on him, but it's refreshing to have a no-nonsense Clarkson straightening the drunkie out with style. In a similar way, "Don't Let Me Stop You" amps up the 'tudefulness with its line, " a high threshold for pain, but let's get one thing straight, I'm not down to share you with anyone," and it's yet another probable hit--as if either Kelly or this album has to worry about such things. The same goes for the title track, its cool "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" march feel feeding into the chorus' international vibe like a harem stopping by the set of Kyle XY (as in "WHY" did ABC Family cancel that terrific series?).

Kelly Clarkson's vocals on every ballad, especially "Cry" (whose working title HAD to be "Is It Over Yet?"), blow away any comparisons to her youngish peers, such as those of the Disney variety (sorry Miley). "Already Gone" already sounds timeless, and "Save You" will make you long for Cher's "If I Could Turn Back Time" period. The song has an inside out "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" drum rat-a-tat on the verses, and emo-randomness on the choruses; when they drop out altogether for the quick bridge, we get Eric Carmen's "All By Myself" piano section Vita-Mixed with Abba's "The Winner Takes It All." Then, the drums pop back for some chorus skitters before the verse pattern returns for its "50 Ways..." fade. "Why spend so much time focused on elements such as drum patterns," you ask? Because Kelly and her producers built every recording like it came with a ten year "Guaranteed Fun!" warranty, and rarely does a pop album give you this much to look at under the hood.

The most obvious discovery is that some of the project's retro, musical references--at least the intentional ones--are some of the smartest and most blatant winks at the seventies, eighties and nineties assembled in one super-sized, fourteen track helping. For instance, back in its day (in the last century), when utilized as the intro on Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out," you never paid attention to the Korg rhythm pattern that continued thumping along throughout the hit. But nowadays, we're so aware of that once overused sound (yes, that would be you, Hall & Oates), that when the cheapy-drum-machined, eighties dance club-vogueing "If I Can't Have You" employs a similar intro antic, you think it has to be a set-up for what will be the album's stinker. Then, in stroll momentary vocoders, radioed-out vocal repeats, reverbed guitar/keyboard hits on the chorus, plus everything but a Stock/Aitken/Waterman disco ball, and suddenly, you're grinning your ass off. (Sorry, Mr. Grant, Clarkson's got spunk and we LOVE it!)

However, if we were to say at least one track from this pure pop album for now people was junky, we've got a winner (please keep all hate mail to twelve paragraphs or less). No, Powers That Be, "Whyyawannabringmedown" does not channel Pat Benatar, Gwen Stafani, nor Joan Jett, nor does it qualify her as a pseudo-punk. Throwing out phrases like "Love Monkey" or simulating "street" kids counting down to the chorus never conjours girl's skool cool; and, really, shame on you for ripping off huge chunks of Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz," you naughty writing team. But even though Clarkson comes off more like an emphatic Belinda Carlisle or Tracey Ullman than rawker in this role, jeez, it's all so damned addicting.

A song we're going to want to hear a lot of this Spring is "Long Shot" which starts with a classical Electric Light Orchestra-like string figure, verses it up with a Squeeze "Up The Junction" vibe, then chants a chorus that has a touch of Joe Jackson's "Is She Really Going Out With Him?"'s ending and hints of Klaatu's "Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft" (okay, that's a stretch). And for a little trip to Who-ville, we've got the intro of "Impossible" that siphons "Won't Get Fooled Again," then it's off to Motown for the chorus' "You Keep Me Hangin' On" nod. Another radio-ready potential hit, "Ready," starts off with a slice of The Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice" keyboards, and the melody and lyrics will make you wonder if Clarkson and her co-writers swiped John Mayer's Sony mini-'corder of song ideas. "I Want You" is a cutesy oldies-meets-Mars throwaway...we may have a new winner for worst track here. Then, the album ends with the gorgeous, "string"-laden ballad, "If No One Will Listen." This probably will be Clarkson's big pop, adult contemporary, and country crossover, in case you were wondering if folks still made things like that. They do, and All I Ever Wanted has got one to prove it.

Kelly Clarkson suddenly found herself on the world stage via a national contest, in the lion's den facing three Bizarro World judges and scores of competing hopefuls. She survived, and though there have been other talented and memorable American Idol winners, she'll always have the dubious honor of having been our first. All I Ever Wanted represents a logical career path that doesn't push buttons or boundaries, but it's not supposed to. It's Clarkson's most wholly satisfying project to date, showcasing her living up to her full potential. Maybe that's all that we, and Clarkson, really ever wanted.

1. My Life Would Suck Without You
2. I Do Not Hook Up
3. Cry
4. Don't Let Me Stop You
5. All I Ever Wanted
6. Already Gone
7. If I Can't Have You
8. Save You
9. Whyyawannabringmedown
10. Long Shot
11. Impossible
12. Ready
13. I Want You
14. If No One Will Listen

Gin Blossoms - Playlist Your Way

Tempe, Arizona's scrappy alt-pop-rock ensemble, the Gin Blossoms, was a woulda-coulda-shoulda band of the nineties that amassed armloads of great big radio records but not a lot of good luck. Having ascended pop's ranks at the same time as contemporaries and touring mates, Toad The Wet Sprocket, they were best known for their Byrds-with-a-little-R.E.M. inspired sound, and their mega-hits "Hey Jealousy" (that inched up the charts for scads of weeks), "Found Out About You" (same here), "Until I Fall Away," "Allison Road" (all from their excellent, four times platinum-selling album, New Miserable Experience), "Follow You Down," and the mellow, now huge Adult Contemporary recurrent, "Til I Hear It From You." The latter was a co-write with another of superstardom's near misses, Marshall Crenshaw, and it was a stray dog featured on the Empire Records soundtrack that almost was recorded by another act. The band was perceived as an overnight sensation even though it had been around, with a personnel switch here and there, since the eighties, and it took a break around 1997 to accommodate solo projects and a much needed recharge.

In another context, "Found Out About You"'s relationship lyrics "You're famous now and there's no doubt, in all the places you hang out, they know your name and know what you're about" might have been applicable to the band due to its sudden national popularity, but Gin Blossom's VH1's Behind The Music-style career ride might be summed-up best in "Allison Road"'s lines, "I've lost my mind on what I'd find and all of the pressure that I left behind." You might remember that the band was forced to survive the 1993 death of one of their members, guitarist Doug Hopkins, who wrote the unit's trademark song and first significant hit, "Hey Jealousy." Hopkins also wrote the band's follow-up smash, the aforementioned "Found Out About You," plus the fan favorite and all too revealing "Lost Horizons," whose Lost Weekend implication, sadly, is no coincidence. Beyond being NME's opening track, that song contains the exquisite line, "She had nothing left to say, so she said she loved me--I stood there grateful for the lie."

Their platinum NME follow-up, Congratulations...I'm Sorry, charted better than its predecessor though it only sold a couple million copies (ah, the good old days when records actually sold). It was soon after that when members Robin Wilson (vocals, guitar), Jesse Valenzuela (vocals, guitars, mandolin), Bill Leen (bass), Phillip Rhodes (drums percussion), and later, Scott Johnson (guitars) ended their first phase and A&M Records run; they reformed a few years later, returning with the indy-released Major Lodge Victory, their last charting original album. Their songwriting always was solid, even on deep album tracks and soundtrack fare such as "Idiot Summer" that was featured in Wayne's World 2, and Valenzuela emerged as the more active collaborator, having written with the likes of Stevie Nicks, Judy Collins, J.D. Southeer, Tommy Keane, and Sue Sandberg.

For our convenience--but not exactly for our aesthetic sensibilities (considering its well-designed, Spartan eco-packaging)--comes a fourteen-song collection titled Playlist Your Way that perfectly hits all of the group's highlights our way. It includes all of the above tracks plus the singles "As Long As It Matters," "Day Job" and "Not Only Numb," fan favorites such as "Mrs. Rita" and "Just South Of Nowhere" (originally from the group's first A&M EP, Up And Crumbling), and their lovely, overlooked potential hit single, "Pieces Of The Night." You now can trade-in your Millennium and Outside Looking In collections since this concise anthology plays better than any that has been released on this group to date. FYI, it's one of the best audio scrapbooks of practically any band's career of this period regardless of it being part of a label's generic line of product. Still not convinced? It's modestly priced and to sweeten the deal, a podcast download card is included.

1. Follow You Down
2. Hey Jealousy
3. Until I Fall Away
4. Allison Road
5. Mrs. Rita
6. Found Out About You
7. Lost Horizons
8. Idiot Summer
9. Not Only Numb
10. Just South Of Nowhere
11. Pieces Of The Night
12. As Long As It Matters
13. Day Job
14. Till I Hear It From You