Gosh, it’s gotta be so hard to be a pop star in 2016. Artists don’t sell records anymore. Labels concentrate more on The Song than they do The Talent. Fads have always shifted in influence and depth, but current trends are almost literally impossible to sustain, considering an audience that hardly allows itself to like anything before immediately moving onto The New Shiny Thing. Plus, people don’t like to be nice anymore.
It’s not just “onto the next one.” It’s “onto the next one because the last one now sucks.”
So, kudos to Julia Fanning for at least trying to step into a world that’s probably as hopeless as it is thankless. Her debut self-titled EP is glossy, catchy, and even a little interesting at times. You can tell that she set herself a goal, and that goal was to showcase her talents in the same way contestants on “The Voice” might do it: Sound as confident as can be, highlight all the vocal chops you have, and then kill ‘em with kindness.
The formula works best for her on the set’s most upbeat track, “Devil.” It recalls the best moments from such likeminded local artists as Ruut and even Jenny Leigh, where the shine in production is top notch and the occasionally cliched songwriting itself can be forgiven for any level of predictability it might embody. Here, though, the words take a mildly self-deprecating turn in the form of “I woke up to the devil again / It looks like this one might love me / Guess I’ll make him breakfast in bed,” and it works. On top of powerful drums and in the wake of some pop-funk guitars, it plays even better with each listen.
“Flying” is in the same vein, despite it not entirely reaching the standard that “Devil” sets. The most affecting moments come when the pre-chorus hits and the D.C.-area singer gets her Bruno Mars on. The eight measures of a dance-tastic groove are worth their weight in pop gold, and whenever they come around, you can picture florescent strobe lights bouncing from one end of an arena stage to another. Breaking the tempo in half for the hook works, too, if only because it’s both unexpected and tasteful.
As for the other three songs … well that depends on what your position might be when it comes to balladry. “If I Had It All” takes a vague page from the Alicia Keys playbook when Fanning proclaims, “If I had it all, I’d have nothing at all if I don’t have you.” Musically, it plays things safe, keyboards anchoring the verses while inoffensive electric guitars step up in other areas that need girth. It’s made for weddings and high school proms, and God bless it for that.
Things are slightly more intriguing with “Love Surrender,” which drives forward with the help of prominent rim shots. Still, the star of the show here is the piano, which creates an aptly pretty backdrop for a song about love and commitment. It’s arguably the most elastic Fanning’s voice gets throughout these five songs, and for that, she should be commended. Still, there are moments where you can’t help but hope for a little more depth when she steps to the mic. She has a fine voice, but an extra dose of soul wouldn’t hurt.
And then there’s “The River,” which is dramatic in nature and even a bit mysterious in lyrical content. It’s the only track here with a feature spot, and Luke James Shaffer’s backing vocals add value to the production. His voice meshes nicely with her more voluminous intonations. Orchestral arrangements fill the hook while a piano drives it the rest of the way and as she asserts that she’s “got a lot to say,” it’s hard not to wonder what she left out this time around.
After all, she did discuss love, loss of love, discovery of love, and, well, more love. Which is kind of the deal if you want to be a pop artist. Nary an “American Idol” or “Voice” winner exists without having to prove that you can be successful at singing about life’s most ambiguous reality. This is a singer that need not worry, though, because if nothing else, this EP proves that Fanning is in her element when that four-letter word rears its banal head.
So, again. Kudos to Julia Fanning. It ain’t easy out there for a pop star and these songs prove that if nothing else, she is someone who has the talent and the voice to maybe — just maybe — one day actually pull it off.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***