If you recognize the name ‘Haley Reinhart’, then you most likely recognize her from one of two sources: American Idol or Postmodern Jukebox. Everybody knows American Idol, one of the best-known singing competitions that’s launched plenty of careers. Not as many people might know Postmodern Jukebox, a Youtube channel where a rotating group of musicians cover famous songs in a style that’s remarkably different than the original: a Motown version of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” or a Big Band cover of Elle King’s “Exes and Ohs.” Haley Reinhart’s third album, What’s that Sound?, sounds exactly like the sort of album that an American Idol and Postmodern Jukebox alum would make.
A generous person would call What’s that Sound? a homage to the 1960s. A less generous person would call it karaoke. The album contains classics from the decade, including “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” “The Letter,” and “Baby It’s You.” It feels less like a coherent album and more like the line-up of a ‘cover the 1960s’ episode of American Idol. It wouldn’t surprise me if Reinhart chose these songs simply because they’re popular, not because they fit her neo-soul, pop/jazz aesthetic.
Because in her quest to give a greatest hits of the 1960s, Reinhart chooses songs that do not fit her voice at all. Her style of singing works wonderfully on songs that fit that style, most notably her cover of “Oh! Darling” by the Beatles. But Reinhart falters on the quieter songs or songs with a different sound. She wails her way through the Buffalo Springfield protest anthem “For What It’s Worth,” barely touching on any of the quiet of the original. Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” also gets a very conventional, very generic, rock-ish take. Reinhart plays it annoyingly straightforward, removing any of the haunting elements of the original. Of course, part of the reason people cover songs is to put their own spin on it. But with something like “White Rabbit,” a song so emblematic of the 1960s counterculture, doing a cover version without even attempting some of the song’s more psychedelic elements make the final product fall flat.
While ten of the songs are covers of 1960s classics, three of the songs are original compositions. Unfortunately for Reinhart, the original compositions are where the album falters.Though Reinhart tries to make the original compositions fit the aesthetic, they stick out like a sore thumb. There’s nothing Reinhart could do to change the fact that it’s a BIG jump going from a 1960s classic to a song with the lyrics “alienated internet aided self-proclaiming supernatural minds.” Reinhart never does anything to mitigate that jump and the original songs suffer for it. The biggest offender is “Bring the Love Back Home,” a song with nonsensical lyrics that seems tailor-made for Pepsi commercials, with only a half-hearted doo wop break and the brass stylings to tie it back to the album as a whole.
The album succeeds in style. One of the highlights of Postmodern Jukebox is that even if they do a very stereotypical “sound”, the end result physically sounds great, occasionally overshadowing the singer. Unfortunately for Reinhart’s vocals but fortunately for the listener, that happens here. Reinhart provides an annoyingly conventional take to “Baby It’s You”, giving the song her best wail for the crowds, in contrast to the well-polished guitars backing her up. That brass on the chorus is superb and the general arrangement is top notch.
I fully admit that I might be being too hard on this album. But after a summer where I’ve reviewed a surprising amount of cover albums, a cover album that’s simply a karaoke rendition of the originals is becoming one of my biggest pet peeves. There’s a nugget of a great album underneath here and, with better song choices and more adventurous reworkings, Reinhart would have something great on her hands. As it is, with What’s that Sound?, she gives us a boringly safe cover album that brings nothing new to the table. At least for me, that sound is play by numbers.