Review: Ingrid Michaelson’s “Be OK”

Oct 17, 2008 11:11am

You may know Ingrid Michaelson for her appealing song “The Way I Am,” which thanks in part to Old Navy was seemingly culturally ubiquitous for a moment last year.  You may have also heard her music on “Grey’s Anatomy.”  Most of all you may know the Staten Island native as one of the biggest truly independent success stories of the last year.  Her self-released album, “Girls and Boys” managed the virtually unachievable task of getting actual airplay and attention.  It earned it, too.  The songwriting was strong and she’s a worthy songwriter.  Now, Michaelson has returned with the hastily released, “Be OK.”  It’s a sort of odds-and-sods collection of rarities and live cuts.  At 32 minutes, this eleven-track disc feels more like an EP.  While Michaelson remains appealing, few songs possess the same spark as the ear-catching highlights of “Girls & Boys.”  There’s nothing as gloriously crunchy as “Die Alone” or as sing-a-long-ready as “The Hat.” In fact the best song here was also the best song on “Girls and Boys,” as “Be OK” has a stripped down version of “The Way I Am.”  The cut only lasts a little over two-minutes, but it definitely leaves a mark.  Few songs these days are full of so much love.  The title track of “Be OK” appears twice.  A standard version opens the album and an acoustic version closes it.  Really both are pretty laid back and I wouldn’t really consider the first to be very “plugged-in.”  They are simply different arrangements.  To some, the repeated refrain may be annoying at first, but with repeated listens the song does reveal a (perhaps fleeting) sweetness. The song blossoms in its second section, but nonetheless, it suffers from being almost too cute.  Cuteness should be only used in small doses.  Sometimes there’s a fine line between cute and overwhelming sugary.    Michaelson tries her hand at two covers as well.  One works and one doesn’t.  She has great success with “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.”  She brings a sense of gentle beauty to the song that Elvis and UB40 didn’t. Her version of “Over the Rainbow,” on the other hand seems rather strange. She plays with the melody a little too much by adding occasional jazz-infused vocal accents and the pace of her phrasing is unusual. That being said, “Over the Rainbow” in particular has taken much abuse over the years.  Many people like the radically different arrangement of the song by the late Hawaiian singer, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. I am not of that camp. The also late Eva Cassidy delivered her own very popular, hauntingly experimental take. As far as that song is concerned I’m pretty much a purist. Of the three versions mentioned here, Michaelson’s is closest to the original tune. In my opinion the melody shouldn’t be altered at all, but to each his (or her) own. On a live version recorded live from Webster Hall, her song “The Chain” proves to be one of her best songs.  It plays to all her strengths.  It has a slow build with round-style repetition.  Tune-wise, it allows Michaelson to do some subtle vocal-acrobatics early on, before the chorus takes over.  By the end, it becomes an intricate puzzle of voices.  The arrangement is impressive.  “Keep Breathing” is also a highlight.  In fact, had this song been on “Girls and Boys,” it would’ve stood out.  It’s like a sequel to that album’s “Breakable.”  If it sounds familiar, that is because it was (as mentioned above) played during a scene on “Grey’s Anatomy” and featured on the third volume of that show’s soundtrack.  Michaelson is an expert at these dramatic songs about the tension of being human.  The song swells and you can feel her heart breaking as she sings, but it also seems simultaneously like the song is giving her strength.  Beyond the much-overplayed cuteness factor, this is her real gift as a writer and a performer.  “All I can do is keep breathing,” she sings, and you know that she must feel really wounded and just be soldiering through something really traumatic.  “Lady In Spain” is another vaguely enjoyable acoustic number showcasing Michaelson’s style.  Put together with other similar ballads, it doesn’t stand out until you give it a few listens.  She’s recorded more distinctive songs, but this is a nice example of her work. “Oh What a Day” is another song about “healing” after a failed romance.  Similarly, this song is appealing, but would be even better with a fuller arrangement.  Here it sounds like one of the best things you would hear during an “open-mic night” at your local artsy-hipster-friendly bar.  There’s nothing wrong with that but a bolder arrangement would enhance the song’s power.  “Giving Up” has a similar vibe.  If the best moments of “Girls and Boys” prove anything, it’s that Michaelson’s songs really come to life when given some energy.  With a slightly faster tempo and some electricity, this song could’ve been really bouncy.  Here, it is appealing, but sleepy.  “You and I” again borders on being too cute.  It’s a love song about what loving things she and her lover can do if they “get rich.”  It’s somewhat basic Michaelson until the end when it gets a strong, stomping beat.  “Be OK” is uneven and for true fans only, but it still occasionally shows glimpses of Michaelson at her best. It’s also for a good cause, because a portion of the proceeds go to “Stand Up To Cancer,” which raises funds and awareness to increase Cancer research. This may not be the true follow-up fans of “Girls and Boys” are waiting for, but in the meantime this serves as a suitable place-filler until another proper album is ready.   

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