Third place finalist Haley Reinhart, from American Idol season 10, has made a household name of herself with her viral covers of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” and Lady Gaga’s “You and I”. A year later and a complimentary major label debut on showrunner Jimmy Iovine’s Interscope Records, Reinhart released her debut album ‘Listen Up!’ to worldwide critical acclaim. With an album (and voice) that’s been widely compared to Adele’s ’21’, the hype surrounding Reinhart’s post-Idol debut release is warranted. To further the British comparisons, ‘Listen Up!’ is the most genuinely soulful album since Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back To Black’ – Motown influences included. Vocals are an extreme strongpoint for her career, which is why ‘Listen Up!’ has received positive reactions throughout 2012. The Idol judges praised her unique voice repeatedly, and as the show progressed towards the finale, each performance was way better than the previous one. Known for her “growl” and piercing beauty, Haley’s ‘Listen Up!’ is just as sweet as she is.
“Oh My!” (featuring B.o.B) is the album’s opener, and its heavy horn arrangement sets the tone for Haley’s debut. She sings about a lover that makes her repeat her own song title (with an exclamation point) at the sight or touch of him. Reinhart’s vocals are strong and set up B.o.B.’s verse with ease, despite questioning the necessity of his input. The flirtatious number opens the set brilliantly, as its the exact nature America has come to know Haley for. First single “Free” is Haley’s official introduction to mainstreamers. Reinhart discusses the common pattern of breaking up with a lover only to make up and break up several times afterwards. Freedom, for Reinhart, is that period in which lovers finally progress from her life and she becomes happy again. The essence of feeling “free” has been explored by many superstars in the music industry, but few with Haley’s vocal talents. Written by award-winning pop producer Busbee (of Pink’s “Try” fame), “Free” stands as the only song on Haley’s debut that she didn’t receive a primary songwriting credit for. Here, it could be assumed that “Free” was written solely to set up Reinhart’s album promo, but either way it’s a stellar start to her already promising career.
“Liar” centers itself around a strong (but strange) lyric – “I’m not calling you a liar, I just wish you were”. Co-written by Color Me Badd lead singer Sam Watters, “Liar” is a great pop/rock single for Reinhart as she tackles one of life’s most prevalent issues – dishonest boyfriends. She goes on to discuss her lover’s mishaps while fibbing, effortlessly laying down a vocal that’s mind blowing. Haley gives a slight nod to Tina Turner through belting the song’s chorus, as her signature growl pours through each note. “Wasted Tears” is slightly Supremes-like as the pulsating drum and horn arrangement leads her songwriting. It’s also notable here that Haley’s storytelling is very vivid, as she paints the perfect picture of realizing that all her tears over a less-than-perfect lover were indeed “Wasted”. As the bridge comes in, the drums get heavier and Reinhart’s vocals follow. From the empowering message, it’s clear that “Wasted” was written for younger generations struggling with heartbreak and moving on.
Set up to be the second single from ‘Listen Up’, “Undone” is, hands down, one of the best vocals of our generation. Haley’s vocals are commanding and haunting alike as she unravels herself after a failed relationship. The piano arrangement leads the inspirational tune, as Haley bravely sings “I’m unraveling, looking for things that’ll never be”. Her unfiltered emotions pour over “Undone” like gravy on potatoes and becomes an emotional highlight on the disc. Honestly, there aren’t too many artists (Beyonce’ included) that can deliver perfection as Haley has done here. I could challenge any of my favorite artists (or yours) to attempt “Undone” and I can guarantee the results wouldn’t come out as perfect as Reinhart’s original. “Now That You’re Here” is a songwriting dream filled with a #britishstyle meets Motown influence. Haley sings “you’re everything I’ve been thirsty for, you’re everything that I can’t afford, can’t leave you now I’d be trembling, counting every tear” with a level of conviction and belief that is just plain unheard of for a debut artist. The vocal on “Here” is reminiscent of Haley’s Idol cover of the Nina Simone rock classic “House of the Rising Sun” and reels you in for a full listen in amazement.
“Wonderland” finds Reinhart going ethereal vocally, and stands as a highlight on ‘Listen Up!’. The verses are extremely touching and the chorus just sends you into outer space, but it’s the vocals again that win this song’s crown. The song was co-written by Chris Seefried of 90’s group God’s Child who was discovered by Prince. While closely listening to “Wonderland”, everything from the arrangement to the songwriting gives me early Prince vibes but from a female perspective. Bluesy but jazzy and R&B-ish at the same time, “Wonderland” is so catchy it could work in any format if ever pushed as a single. “Keep Coming Back” is slightly dark in tone, but Reinhart’s vocals shine brighter than any diamond ever made. Along with a few other songs on the disc, “Back” takes a revenge-esque part in Reinhart’s artistry, as her harrowing vocals come off more angry than pop-happy. The storytelling parallels a country influence thanks to Grammy-award winning writer Steve McEwan (Martina McBride, Keith Urban).
“Hit the Ground Runnin'” may come off as similar to Haley’s Idol performances, but its inspirational message is far more important here. “Runnin'” discusses leaving a bad relationship at the first sight of a red flag. Haley sings “I hit the ground runnin, runnin, runnin, so don’t go following me” to her poor lover with a level of convincing that’s the best we’ve ever seen from her post-Idol. The bluesy vocal commands the song and Haley continues to rise in octaves with each added ad-lib arrangement. The song’s chorus is the true moneymaker here but a Grammy-esque nod is due to the vocal arrangement, as Haley shows no stopping her reign as a voice to be reckoned with. “Runnin” was also co-written by Mike Elizondo and Trevor Lawrence Jr., notable Dr. Dre collaborators under his Aftermath songwriting imprint.
“Walking on Heaven” is probably the only #throwaway on the album, but it’s still a decent showing from Reinhart. The typical analogy with heaven and love is explored here, and there’s no difference to the stereotypical song format. While it may seem like something heard many times before, “Heaven” features another lush arrangement and near-perfect vocal showing from Haley. “Follow Me (I’m Right Behind You)” sounds like it was inspired by Janis Joplin or Alanis Morissette with its futuristic rock production. The lyrics are somewhat elementary and laughable (“caught up in a pickle, stuck up in a jam”), but Reinhart’s vocals are so strong that it’s overlooked. The song gives Haley’s voice a slight Amy Winehouse nod, as the Mark Ronson-soundalike production fits in perfectly with her ‘Back To Black’ album. “Follow Me” would be a great single for Reinhart as the song is cross-formatted and would work on both mainstream and rock charts alike.
“Spiderweb” stands as my favorite song on ‘Listen Up!’ and after a first listen, you can see why. The haunting subject matter sticks with you as Haley goes into the first verse (“I’ll give you a taste, one drop will erase all of your senses”), but the chorus is larger than life. Very few artists can produce a vocal as Haley’s with the same results, which is somewhat taunted by Reinhart shortly after the second chorus. The end of “Spiderweb” features yet another chilling high-note, while the chorus rocks out (“you know you want me to take you down”). With the raw, scratchy vocal that works incredibly well paired with a beautifully written song, it’s almost as if she’s performing live for Idol on the album.
“What You Don’t Know” comes off as an obvious attempt for pop radio, as it shadows the arrangement of many Adele (’21’) singles. Unlike her British vocal counterpart, Haley’s voice is much grittier which makes for another great vocal showing. In fact, “Know” feels more Motown-ish than anything else on the disc – heavy on ad-libs and layered vocals alike. The lyrics are also commendable as Reinhart takes a role model approach to unconditional love, another characteristic that makes her stand out from other vocalists. “Let’s Run Away” closes the disc with a tropical influence, but also one of the best vocals on the album. Reinhart sings of leaving off with her lover to a place where they can be themselves and love life together. The drum arrangement rides Haley’s vocals like a #riddim, and her signature “growl” just makes “Away” even more enjoyable. Pop artists should especially take note here, because Haley delivers a quality midtempo with any big producers, recycled beats, or washed up songwriting.
Writing a review on a vocally perfect album may have been a challenge, but it sure wasn’t for Haley Reinhart. Every song on her debut album would work – some in different markets, some in multiple – giving her voice the versatility it desperately needed post-Idol for success. Haley’s fans, dubbed “Haliens” have even gone to say that ‘Listen Up!’ could be one of the greatest albums ever made. While I may cherish a certain cotton-candy with my pop, I can’t lie and say I disagree with her fans’ sentiments. Haley’s voice is robustly undeniable and is shown all throughout her debut album, which has me secretly waiting for the tribunal covers from the world’s biggest artists to start.