This week marked the release of Kelly Clarkson’s fifth album, Stronger. But then again, you already know all about that thanks to my good friend Bradley’s stellar review.
Fans who pre-ordered the album from Kelly’s official website were also given the option to treat themselves to her debut EP, The Smoakstack Sessions. Recorded at the Smoakstack Studios in Nashville, the 6-track EP is made up of alternate versions of select tracks from Stronger, a reworking of “If I Can’t Have You” and a cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”
Interestingly, the EP does not include Stronger’s lead single, “Mr. Know It All” or confirmed second single, the anthemic “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger).” And while I was disappointed to not see “Honestly” or “Dark Side” (which I reviewed upon its initial leak in July) make the tracklisting, I’m also appreciative that the EP is shedding a spotlight on some of Kelly’s lesser buzzed about tracks.
I have to admit that as a whole, I actually prefer the EP recordings of these songs to the versions included on Kelly’s albums. Allow me to guide you through each track to explain why.
Often times when Kelly performs her music, she downplays the pop element and increases the grunge factor. While on Stronger, “Hello” is a quirky song full of energetic handclaps and infectious pop/rock flavor, here it shines as both a grittier and more soulful track. Removing much of the original’s instrumentation, The Smoakstack Sessions’ “Hello” is the perfect melding of Kelly’s adoration for both rock and blues.
And although this version of “Hello” undergoes the least amount of changes between album tracks and the interpretations of them found on this EP, it still manages to stick out as one of the edgiest cuts from the Stronger era.
2. “The War Is Over”
The same way that Kelly’s acoustic version of her previous hit “Already Gone” took an already pretty song and made it something remarkably gorgeous, this bare version of “The War Is Over” towers over its album counterpart.
On Stronger, Kelly sings this song with a tone of confidence and defiance. Yet on The Smoakstack Sessions, “The War Is Over” becomes a desperate plea in which Kelly is painfully trying to convince herself of the truths she’s singing. Her raw vocals add layers of rasp and honesty missing from the polished album version. Thus, the vulnerability displayed adds a hauntingly gorgeous sense of fragility to the song.
3. “You Love Me”
On Stronger, “You Love Me” is a bouncy and upbeat track that’s fun to bop your head and burst your bubblegum to. This EP version, however, replaces the album’s sunshine infused ‘80s pop sound with aggressively dark rock.
Amplified by minor chord progression, the lyrics of the song don’t just cut you deeper than the version you’re used to – they stare into your eyes as they do so. The rage Kelly was channeling as she wrote the song comes full surface as every “I’m not good enough” is infused with a venomous sting of betrayal.
This brash take on the song may as well be dubbed the “My December Remix” because it’s the first time we’ve heard Kelly truly release the angry rock star out of her pop cage since that album’s release.
4. “The Sun Will Rise”
Sticking to her Texan roots, Kelly has always been a public supporter of country music. Don’t think she has the chops for it? Just listen to her duets with Reba McEntire, Jason Aldean and Rascall Flats or her live cover of Carrie Underwood’s “I Know You Won’t” from her Los Angeles show last week. Convinced yet?
On this reworking of the final track from the deluxe edition of Stronger, Kelly premieres her first true solo country effort. Thankfully getting rid of Kara DioGuardi’s lackluster vocals that are featured on the album version, Kelly’s country tinged voice takes center stage as she croons over the accompaniment of gentle strings and crescendo-ing percussion. The result is not only a testament to Kelly’s wide range and genre flexibility, but will also have you reaching for sweet tea from the rocking chair on your front porch after the first listen.
5. “If I Can’t Have You”
Originally released on Kelly’s fourth album, All I Ever Wanted, “If I Can’t Have You” was a synthesis of pop/rock and dance music in the vein of The Veronicas’ “Untouched.” Yet when she performed it on the “All I Ever Wanted Tour,” Kelly shook the glitter off of the song and drastically slowed down its tempo.
On The Smoakstack Sessions, this stripped version of “If I Can’t Have You” has finally become available for those fans that fell in love with it after seeing Kelly live. In the place of synthesizers is a fusion of electric guitars, drums and even an organ, which significantly enhances the song’s melancholy mood. Vocally, Kelly cranks up her riff dial as she experiments with the song’s melody. The final product is a refreshingly organic spin on an already fantastic track.
6. “I Can’t Make You Love Me”
When Kelly Clarkson covers someone else’s song, it’s always hard to believe that she is not the original musician behind it. Whether she’s singing songs by Aretha Franklin, Patsy Cline, Aerosmith, The White Stripes, Patty Griffin or mashing up Alanis Morrisette with Kings of Leon, Kelly always injects the music with a passionate fervor and makes it uniquely her own.
On this cover of Bonnie Raitt’s classic “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” Kelly sticks true to the original while simultaneously grounding the song for a more contemporary audience. The intimacy and tranquility of Kelly’s sweet and smooth vocals effortlessly evoke images of her recording by candlelight on a cool spring evening. Anyone looking for a reminder of why Kelly was crowned America’s premiere Idol need look no further than here.
PS: If you haven’t already, make sure to enter MuuMuse’s Stronger giveaway! Ends on November 2.
The Smoakstack Sessions EP is currently available exclusively from Kelly Clarkson’s official web store. Stronger was released on October 24. (Kelly’s Official Store) (iTunes)
Alex Nagorski is a contributor to MuuMuse.