Album Review: Katharine McPhee, “Unbroken” (2010)

The name Katharine McPhee probably means very little to you now, though in 2005, she was known for being that year’s runner up on American Idol (she lost to grey-haired crooner, Taylor Hicks).  I was a fan of McPhee, rooted for her during the season because of her undeniable talent- she had a big voice and could carry a tune much better than several of the other contestants.

Though her considerable vocal talent didn’t lead her to the Idol win, McPhee was still signed to a label and subsequently released three albums- a self-titled debut in 2007, and its follow-up, Unbroken, in 2010 (as well as a Christmas album that same year).  Though McPhee’s career is mainly focused on acting now – she plays one of the lead roles on NBC’s musical drama, Smash– I recently found myself revisiting Unbroken, wondering if McPhee’s vocal talent held up post-Idol.

Though she definitely still has the voice I fell in love with, her CD ends up being an unsatisfying, mundane collection of mid-tempo ballads.

The disc starts off with one of the few upbeat tracks,  It’s Not Right.  The bouncy number has the perfect ingredients for a radio-friendly single: upbeat, breezy chorus, catchy refrain and soaring vocals from McPhee.  Though nothing extraordinary by any means, the song is still a decent opener for the album.  Had It All follows as the album’s lead single.  Musically, the two songs are fairly similar: Had It All has the same jaunty, “sunny, summer day” melody as It’s Not Right, but perhaps boasts a catchier chorus (“I had it all/I threw it all aside/Thinkin’ there was more there I needed to find/I had it all baby/’Til you went away”).  The lyrics here are a bit more interesting, as McPhee sings of letting a relationship slip away due to her own negligence; a theme we often get from male singers, but rarely from female vocalists.

From this point on, sadly, the rest of the album slips into a tangle of barely indistinguishable mid-tempo numbers.  Though McPhee does have a great voice, none of the tracks on the album really do much effort at highlighting it and the majority of the songs are so incredibly unremarkable that I can hardly remember them just after I’ve finished listening.  Keep Drivin’ is a downtrodden ballad which never goes much of anywhere musically.  McPhee duets with songwriter, Jason Reeves on Terrified, a mid-tempo ballad that sounds remarkably like a Colbie Caillat song. Which is really no surprise, as the track was also co-written by Reeves, who has done a lot of writing for Caillat.  Their vocals sound nice together, but the song is still pretty sub-par, pop radio fluff.  The same could be said for Fautline, yet another ballad. The melody is a bit more interesting, and McPhee’s vocals get a bit more of a workout, but the track still fails to really stand out, and doesn’t do much for me, overall.

Finally, a stand out track appears (albeit, a little too late in the album) with the title track, Unbroken, a stirring, emotional ballad.  Co-written by McPhee herself and singer-songwriter, Paula Cole, the ballad is the only on the album that shows off the talent I bought this album for.  McPhee’s voice is strong and impressive during the mournful lyrics (“These tears are falling/And all my life, and all this time/My love for you has added up to this/It’s unbroken, unbroken, unbroken”), reminding the listener that she was once runner-up on American Idol for a reason.

The disc comes to an end with an unnecessary cover of Brand New Key.  The song, originally recorded by folk singer, Melanie, was first released in 1971 and more familiarly known as “The Rollerskate Song”.  There’s something both quaint and irritating about the cutesy way in which McPhee sings, “I’ve got a pair of brand new roller skates” during the chorus, and the remake is just such an odd choice (I mean, the original wasn’t that great of a song, was it?  Why remake it?) that it just makes me wonder why the track was added at atll.  I’m sure if McPhee had chosen to perform this rendition on Idol, she certainly would’ve been panned by all three judges.

For the most part, Unbroken is a mediocre effort from Katharine McPhee.   While McPhee does have a lot of vocal talent, she also needs stronger, more memorable tracks, with a varied selection of songs, rather than this monotonous offering we’re presented with instead.

Rating: 2_stars.svg

Track List
1. It’s Not Right
2. Had It All
3. Keep Drivin’
4. Last Letter
5. Surrender
6. Terrified (with Jason Reeves)
7. How
8. Say Goodbye
9. Faultline
10. Anybody’s Heart
11. Lifetime
12. Unbroken
13. Brand New Key


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