This year, Kelly Clarkson celebrated her tenth anniversary in the music industry.
To commemorate this milestone, the singer released Greatest Hits – Chapter One, a compilation of her most commercially successful songs, as well as a handful of new tracks (including the current single, “Catch My Breath”). Yet while this release does a good job of showing off Clarkson’s confectionery pop star persona, it misses part of what has made her such an interesting musician over the years: her multifaceted artistry and genre defying and boundary-less talent.
That’s exactly what’s on display in The Smoakstack Sessions, Vol. 2, an EP released exclusively via Clarkson’s official webstore in tandem with Greatest Hits – Chapter One. The second installment of the singer’s wildly fan-favorite series of EPs recorded at The Smoakstack recording studios in Nashville (check out my review of volume 1 here), volume 2 is a diverse compilation of songs that Clarkson covered during her All I Ever Wanted tour in 2009.
Acoustic and stripped down, these EPs expose sides of Clarkson that are not often heard on her albums. Below, I break down The Smoakstack Sessions, Vol. 2 track-by-track.
The last time Kelly Clarkson released an Aretha Franklin cover, she was a quirky 19-year-old girl competing on the first season of American Idol. On that show, she took on the Queen of Soul’s “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and would subsequently go on to be named the reality show’s first winner.
Yet on Idol, Clarkson’s performances were heavily tailored as a way to showcase her vocal pipes rather than who she was as an individual artist. She had to convince voters that hers was the most powerful voice by always displaying it at its largest, and could thus not only fill an amphitheater, but also shake the seats inside it.
It’s so rewarding, then, to hear Clarkson revisit Franklin’s repertoire a full decade later. This time around, the songstress is not gunning for a crown. And rather than trying to simply emulate Franklin, she is unafraid to tackle this classic material and inject it with her own unique signature style.
Recorded with Questlove, Clarkson’s version of Franklin’s 1967 hit, “I Never Loved A Man,” is a significantly grittier counterpart to its original. Over the years, Clarkson has trained herself to employ the huskiness in her voice as one of the most valuable tools on her belt. On this track, she marries her rasp and her belt to both wink at the song’s bluesy roots while giving it an edgier rock & roll quality. The result is a stunning tribute that feels relevant, contemporary, and refreshingly original.
Sticking true to her Texan upbringing, Clarkson has long flirted with the idea of releasing country music. She’s already re-released country makeovers of two of her singles (“Mr. Know It All” and the Reba McEntire duet, “Because of You”), and sang a number of times at the Country Music Awards – including performances of “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” her collaboration with country star Jason Aldean, and “Don’t Rush,” a duet with Vince Gill that serves as one of the new tracks found on Greatest Hits – Chapter One.
“Your Cheatin’ Heart” is a cover of one of the crown jewels in country legend Hank Williams’ legacy. A midtempo bluesy-folk story about an unfaithful lover, the song is orchestrated by a hearty dosage of horns that enhance Clarkson’s honey-smooth vocals. The song is the type of classic country that influenced the nostalgic Americana sounds of contemporary bands such as Mumford & Sons and She & Him, while also being slightly fused with sultry Judy Garland-esque theatricality. Once again, Clarkson breathes new life into a genre standard in a way that favorably spotlights her musical versatility and adoration for her craft.
While “I Never Loved A Man” showed off her soulful side, Kelly Clarkson’s smoky jazz bar singer alter ego has never been so alive as on her cover of Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight.”
Another personal favorite of Clarkson’s from the 1950s, “Walking After Midnight” is a gorgeous blend of blues guitar, bass, electric organ and a foot-tapping snare beat. Her raw vocals provide such a strong sense of intimacy that it makes it easy to close your eyes and picture her singing the song while standing in front of you (uber-fans! Pun alert!).
It is on this track that Clarkson is at the very top of her game. Her astounding control over her voice mixed with her sexy nightclub crooner attitude serve as a master-class in jazz performance. Rarely has Clarkson sounded simultaneously so emotional and confident, making “Walking After Midnight” an absolute must-have in any fan’s collection.
Mashing up two songs that were released a full decade apart may sound like a sonically risky task, but Clarkson has never been one to turn down a musical challenge. This is, after all, a woman who has covered everyone from Aerosmith to Mariah Carey to Eminem.
Capturing the vulnerability of Alanis Morissette’s “That I Would Be Good” (1998) and the somber anthemic quality of Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” (2008), Clarkson’s soaring vocal range takes center stage to deliver a powerhouse performance. The singer’s rock star persona becomes dominant, as she toys with a Pink-like rasp over the clashing of electric guitars and driving percussion.
Clarkson has always had a badass rock chick locked deep inside of her – it’s just rare that her label lets out that part of their all-American girl pop star. But when she’s set loose, it’s always the most indulgent treat a Clarkson fan can get.
On the first four tracks of The Smoakstack Sessions, Vol. 2, Clarkson sang four different genres of music: soul, country, jazz, and rock. It makes sense, then, that to close out the EP, she would tackle one more: indie rock. In a decision that would make every open mic night stage in Williamsburg scream “not again,” Clarkson’s last song on the release is a cover of The Black Keys’ “Lies.”
On another incredibly intimate recording, her vocals are as organic as her delivery is passionate. Combined with the way she maintains the Amy Winehouse-inspired funk sound that ties the whole EP together, “Lies” is another tour-de-force from the multi-talented Clarkson. It’s a song that’s perfect for both the coffeehouse and for quiet nights at home with a glass of red wine.
With any luck, this song – and entire release – is our first taste of a more mature Clarkson’s future musical direction. And while Greatest Hits – Chapter One serves up Clarkon’s biggest chart smashes, The Smoakstack Sessions, Vol. 2 paints a portrait of an artist who is far more complex than your average pop star. The entire record serves as a testament to the singer’s musical expertise and vocal brilliance. Do yourself a favor and pick up your copy now.
Alex Nagorski is a contributor to MuuMuse.
Greatest Hits – Chapter One was released on November 19. (iTunes)