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Coming out of the California singer/songwriter scene in the mid-2000s, Sara Bareilles made a strong impression with her self-produced indie debut. Her mix of intelligence, melody and contemporary take on classic pop influences landed her a major label deal. Her tongue-in-cheek “Love Song” made her a star on a national level and established Bareilles as a core artist at Adult Pop and Adult Alternative radio formats. With new album What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress just out, it’s a good time for a look back at the catalogue of Sara Bareilles.

Sara Bareilles: Careful Confessions (2004)

More than half of Sara Bareilles’s independent debut Careful Confessions would be revisited for her first major label album three years later. That left an additional five songs that didn’t make her Epic albums. “Undertow” and “My Love” were the same kind of intelligent, jazz-inflected adult piano pop that earned Bareilles a following after “Love Song.” “Responsible,” “Red” and “Inside Out” were more guitar-driven, but fit snugly into the singer’s alterna-pop musings on the ups and downs of relationships. They’re all solid, and it’s not hard to see why this collection landed Bareilles a major label deal. Bareilles’s gifts were better displayed on Little Voice, but die-hards might consider seeking out some of these early songs.

Sara Bareilles: Little Voice (2007)

Sara Bareilles found a mass audience with her major label debut Little Voice. Infectious lead single “Love Song” was a killer hook for the album, a jaunty, playful piece of piano pop that displayed intelligence, wit and an appealing independent streak. It was a good set-up for the singer with pop audiences. Not only was it a smart and creative piece of work (directed not to a lover but to label execs demanding a romantic ditty to position as a single), it also demonstrated good artistic instincts that would serve the singer well in her career. Several other cuts fell into the same cheeky, upbeat, jazz-inflected alterna-pop vein (“Vegas,” “Bottle It Up,” “Many the Miles,” “Fairytale”) and “Come Round Soon” put some nice bite into the formula. Bareilles’s flexible alto soothed and caressed her ruminations on modern relationships, but truly shone on the collection’s strong piano ballads. “One Sweet Love” and “City” were compelling moments, but heart-wrenching album closer “Gravity” was a true stunner, rivaling “Love Song” as the collection’s best cut. Little Voice was a winner that deservedly made Bareilles a star.

Sara Bareilles: Kaleidoscope Heart (2010)

Sara Bareilles took a little time crafting the follow-up to her breakthrough album. When Kaleidoscope Heart arrived, on the surface it seemed like the same combination of jaunty uptempo pop and lovely ballads that had made the singer a star. And certainly her focus on the ups and downs of modern relationships remained intact. But a closer listen to Kaleidoscope Heart revealed subtle details that made the album sound richer. Bareilles deployed more variety in rhythm, tempo and sonic touches that added depth to her sound. Her lyrics seemed to dig even deeper than they had on Little Heart. The clever relationship kiss-off anthem “King of Anything” had her back in the Top 40, while the uptempo “Uncharted” and “Gonna Get Over You” found favor with Adult Pop audiences. Bareilles delivered some more strong ballads; “The Light” packed quiet power, while the spare “Bluebird” was an effective distillation of the singer’s alternative influences. The compelling “Breathe Again,” a weary lament for a failing love, landed with real emotional impact. Kaleidoscope Heart might be Sara Bareilles’s best album and is the key collection for fans.

Sara Bareilles: The Blessed Unrest (2013)

Relocating to New York encouraged Sara Bareilles to experiment a bit more. Not that The Blessed Unrest was a major departure for the singer. Her usual mix of uptempo songs and ballads and her focus on the ups and downs of modern relationships remained in place. Empowerment anthem “Brave,” her third trip to the Top 40, would have easily fit on earlier albums. Instead, Bareilles embraced more adventurous rhythms and tempos on some songs. She also incorporated more electronic production elements, often as embroidery for a cut’s overall mood. But a couple of songs (“Eden,” “Satellite Call”) used those production techniques to process Bareilles’s voice, giving them a spiky, modern feel. The approach landed The Blessed Unrest a left field Album of the Year Grammy nomination. And yet the best songs were still the ones that felt like “classic Sara Bareilles.” Autumnal relationship lament “Manhattan” and rhythmic ballads “1000 Times” and “December” were the most memorable cuts. The Blessed Unrest was an interesting variation on a theme, but falls just short of being as memorable as her prior two albums.

Sara Bareilles: What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress (2015)

Among the current crop of pop stars, none may be as well-suited to composing a Broadway score as Sara Bareilles. Tin Pan Alley and jazz are part of the singer/songwriter’s musical DNA and she works in a clean, direct style that’s well-suited to the stage. For What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress, Bareilles takes several compositions penned for the Broadway bound show (based on the acclaimed movie) and tries to turn them into a “Sara Bareilles album.” And mostly, she succeeds. These songs never entirely shake their stage origins, they’re too steeped in the fabric of Waitress for that. But the recordings are bright and catchy enough for What’s Inside to fit comfortably into the singer’s catalogue. Bareilles has always brought a modern perspective to classic musical influences and the songs’ themes (the search for self, empowerment, the ups and downs of love) are firmly in her wheelhouse.

There are two types of songs on What’s Inside. Some are more plot-focused, using song structures that facilitate the elegant transmission of info to the audience. Because they’re so firmly based in the Broadway idiom, these tunes have a retro feel that’s charming, enjoyable and on-trend. Bareilles’s heart is clearly in them, but a listener can also see how the songs would land with more impact in context. It’s the other songs where Bareilles realizes her ambition to craft recordings that stand on their own. These songs are more emotion-based, providing glimpses into the characters’ inner lives that more easily translate to the universal. “I Didn’t Plan It” sounds like a prototypical, uptempo Sara Bareilles song. Lovely ballads “Soft Place To Land” and “You Matter To Me” (the latter featuring simpatico duet vocals from Jason Mraz) shimmer and brim with the empathy that Bareilles is known for. The highlight is the stunning ballad “She Used To Be Mine,” a genuine showstopper whose protagonist surveys her wasted potential and unfulfilled dreams with clear-eyed, unsparing realism. Bareilles delivers it with soul and passion, making it something that can live in her repertoire for years to come. What’s Inside will definitely appeal to Bareilles’s core fans, though it’s just steeped enough in its theatrical origins to limit its appeal to a broader pop audience. If Waitress scores on Broadway, though, What’s Inside could have a healthy second life as a key catalogue item.

Originally published at on November 11, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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