Another Fallen 'Idol': Katharine McPhee, 'Unbroken'

January 4, 2010

IT HAS TO be tough to be just another pleasant voice in the ever-growing pool of former “American Idol” contestants.

It’s even tougher when you’re Katharine McPhee and in 2006 you were the runner-up in the “AI” season with (arguably) the greatest number of successful alums: besides winner Taylor Hicks, the show’s fifth season also produced Elliot Yamin, AMA winner Chris Daughtry and Taylor Swift tourmate Kellie Pickler.

McPhee did well enough on “Idol” to get her to the second-place slot, but her self-titled 2007 debut album never delivered the contemporary-pop hits that she seemed so capable of producing. She was dropped from RCA Records after its disappointing sales and moved to Verve Forecast for her new sophomore effort, “Unbroken.”

The real problem that McPhee faces with “Unbroken” is that she doesn’t sound unbroken at all — nearly the whole album is devoted to tiresome I’m-so-damaged-from-my-breakup songs.

In fact, she sounds straight busted.

McPhee’s material makes a pretty stark contrast to the hit singles from the more successful female “Idol” alums. Part of what makes Carrie Underwood‘s “Before He Cheats” and Kelly Clarkson‘s “I Do Not Hook Up” so compelling is their sense of empowerment: those two don’t seem to let a guy get the best of them, while McPhee seems content to wallow in her misery.

It’s no surprise that the themes on “Unbroken” are nothing new: there’s her inability to move on (“Ten million pieces of my heart to put back together” from “How”), the regret over breaking up with someone (“I didn’t know what I had till you were gone” from “Had It All”) and perhaps one of the worst cliches of them all — taking a page from the “You’re So Vain” songbook — a song (“Last Letter”) about using a breakup to write a song.

If McPhee wasn’t going to set herself apart from other chick singers’ lyrical content (as tired as heartbreak songs are, they are infinitely marketable and easily relatable for most listeners), she could at least have chosen a style to make herself sound unique. Instead, most of the tunes on “Unbroken” are the kind of overpowering, overinstrumented songs that blast out any hint of subtlety in her voice. There can be such power and emotion in the spaces between notes, but there’s so much going on in these songs that the focus is usually anywhere but McPhee’s voice.

The compositions that do ease up, though, give a glimmer of the passion that pushed McPhee so far in the “Idol” competition. The simplicity of “Anybody’s Heart” and the piano-backed torchiness of “Say Goodbye” add a certain power to McPhee’s voice and persona that she never quite achieves on the more ornately orchestrated tunes. It’s enough to make one wish for a full album of piano ballads, just to strip away some of the frills that detract from the sweetness in her vocals.

And, of course, the one real downside to an album full of sad love songs is that McPhee never really sounds like she’s having any fun.

She does break free, though, on the album’s last track, which is a cover of Melanie‘s “Brand New Key“; even with a more modern arrangement, her vocals remain true to the innocence and playfulness of the original. Of course, most of her listeners are probably too young to know what quad skates are — much less understand what you’d need a key for — but the literal meaning is irrelevant with the obvious liveliness she pours into the song.

It’s just a shame McPhee waited until the last cut of the album (a bonus track, no less) to let loose.

Written by Express contributor Catherine Lewis
Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

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Stephen M. Deusner · January 4, 2010