Own It or Disown It: #276: Vanessa Carlton, Be Not Nobody

OwnItorDisownIt

Vanessa Carlton's smash debut album turned fifteen years old this year, but we're mostly going to talk about its lead single.

Among the multitude of advantages of being on a major label, past the ego boost and promised assurance of visibility, is that major labels are in the business of making the most of their signed talent. If an artist is struggling with their material, they can pay someone to help the artist with their work, whether it is to find the heart of the material or rework it so one’s beloved space opera can still appeal to people who spend money on music these days. There’s no downside to helping an artist complete their task to the best of their ability; at worst, the music doesn’t find an audience but they stay in their artist’s good graces in case they become a success later. It’s just good business.

Vanessa Carlton started writing “A Thousand Miles” in 1998. She, and everyone she showed it off to knew she had something great on her hands, but she had trouble finishing it and struggled for some time to complete it. The above-embedded video is a demo version of the song, titled “Interlude”, and listening to this version of the song and the finished product, after then-President of A&M Ron Fair personally helped produce the track and helped rework the material, leaves me feeling as though A&M failed “A Thousand Miles”, Be Not Nobody, Vanessa Carlton, and themselves.

The demo and finished version of the song has the same high point: that intro. The key piano line of “A Thousand Miles” is killer, on par with “Walking In Memphis” and “Closing Time”, and should provide a fantastic foundation for a pop song. “Interlude”, however, sees Carlton struggle to do something with the rest of the song, layering sounds on top of a loop of the piano line but never finding a direction with it. It’s a fine cut for a demo, but it is dying for someone experienced to cut through the noise and make “Interlude” into the masterpiece it could be. To be fair, I don’t think “A Thousand Miles” is terrible by any means, but there’s a sizable gulf between what it is and how good it could have been. The biggest change between the demo and finished product is cleaning up the fidelity, which shouldn’t count as a bullet-point change because of course, it should sound cleaned up. Ron Fair’s solution to the gradual mess of instrumental layering that comes after the intro is to add more instruments to give the illusion of grandeur. I can’t imagine Fair sitting down with Carlton and having a substantial conversation about the song, but I can too easily imagine Fair saying “yeah, that violin needs to be a bit higher” and patting himself on the back.

Look, I’m not saying that Carlton could have been one of the greatest songwriters of our time if only she had been given the right advice at the right time. “A Thousand Miles”, and the album it is featured on, has enough going for it that I’m forced to give it a thumbs up (and since I’ve otherwise ignored the album: “Rinse” and “Sway” are pretty good cuts that should have done better business). Imagine, however, if Taylor Swift was given similar treatment if the feedback to hearing the melody to “Tim McGraw” was to add every ladylike instrument ever to the mix and assuring her the whole way that it was an improvement on the sound. “A Thousand Miles” isn’t, strictly speaking, Carlton’s only hit song, but it’s the only song anyone remembers from her, and it barely changed from its demo. Shit, I think I could have worked for A&M around this time. I could have set my e-mail to auto-deliver “Clean up the sound, add more sound” in response to any artist asking for advice on their music. I’d have made millions.

It occurs to me that perhaps Ron Fair did the best to his ability to make “A Thousand Miles” into the best song he could. Either way, he failed. It’s a fine song, and that will be its legacy.

VERDICT: OWN

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