‘Hysteria’: Katharine McPhee Holds Her Own As A Versatile Pop Underdog (Album Review)
A new Katharine McPhee studio album in 2015 sounds unlikely — the stuff of fan-fiction, really.
But then, they say that life is stranger than fiction.
The reality is, aside from 2007’s “Over It” and the semi-success of the soundtracks from Smash, the McPheever hasn’t really set the charts ablaze in, well…ever.
This, of course, is an injustice: The talented singer — who first rose to fame on the fifth season of American Idol, if you remember her riding her black horse (and a cherry tree) all the way to second place, right below TAYLOR HICKS ARE YOU KIDDING ME — has produced more than a few underrated gems in her short-but-sweet discography, including the fiercest ode to footwear of all time (“Open Toes”), as well as unsung gay anthem, Smash‘s club-storming “Touch Me.”
Against all odds, McPhee has soldiered on with her music career in Hysteria, a collection of glossy pop productions that proves she’s got more to offer beyond the TV screen. (That being said, the second season of her show Scorpion just premiered this week. Multimedia diva.)
Breezy lead single “Lick My Lips” kicked McPhee’s comeback campaign off this past spring with a disco-fied, falsetto-filled jolt, serving shimmering shades of Katy Perry a la “Birthday” (so, Mariah Carey-oke) — and maybe riding a bit of that “Get Lucky”/”Blurred Lines”/”#GETITRIGHT” wave, too.
Like “Blurred,” the song also owed its greatness to a legend: It’s got a Luther Vandross sample — who she was smart enough to credit, no lawsuits here — and, also like “Blurred,” came with a bizarre Diane Martel video. No suggestive balloons here, though: Instead, loosely Grease/Happy Days-inspired oddness, complete with moody male models standing around amid giant photos of ice cream sundaes and milkshakes. It felt just slightly off but captivating all at once, which is the mark of Martel.
That song, along with several others, was helmed by Florence + The Machine‘s Isabella Summers, just one of the impressive names included in the bunch: Sam Sparro, Ginny Blackmore, Jon Bellion, Ryan Tedder and Sophia Black are all found in the credits. There’s even a Sia co-write.
To her credit as a songwriter, McPhee had a hand in every song on the album, which might have been the recipe to success all along, seeing as this is her most solid effort overall.
The album is a pop pick ‘n’ mix, happily hopping in between genres at random. That’s not a problem, but it makes for a disjointed listen from start-to-finish, like when Kat transitions from “Appetite,” a deliciously dark, shiver-inducing sex jam full of sultry moans that feels like something Tinashe and The XX might cook up together into “Love Strikes,” a sorta-grating piano ballad for theater geeks. Hysteria? More like Schizophrenia.
As far as balladry goes, the Sia and Chris Braide-crafted “Round Your Little Finger” is a much prettier display of her talent as a vocalist: The vulnerable, forget-me-not ode is basically her very own “Blank Page.” (The songs don’t have too much to do with each other apart from their co-writers, but hey, #BuyLotusOniTunes.)
Of all the other songs on Hysteria, “Only One” feels like the most likely chance at a hit. The immediately infectious kiss-off to a dude giving her the side chick treatment is as slick and sassy as it is empowering: “How stupid, young, and naive / Thinking these thrills could turn real, I believed / Borrowed time, how could I not see?” she coos on the melodic earworm. “Although you never leave…that shit don’t work for me.” KATHARINE! One might say she’s…over it.
Frequently, Kat brings fellow pop star contemporaries to mind: The fluttery, folk-dance thumper “Feather” is totally something Hilary Duff could have used on Breathe In. Breathe Out., while “Damage Control” plays like a sparkling howler that would have worked perfectly for Demi Lovato‘s last album. “Stranger Than Fiction,” the Tedder co-write, bursts into the speakers just as every Ryan Tedder track does, uplifting and anthemic as ever. “Break” is the best atmospheric ’80s power ballad Leona Lewis never recorded for Grindr favorite I Am, and the string-and-synth filled “Burn” sounds like a distant cousin to Swedish diva Agnes‘ “Release Me.”
Those aren’t copycat allegations: If anything, it’s proof that while she’s never been a radio fixture, Katharine McPhee can serve up quality pop that sounds every bit as good as the major label players. She’s versatile enough as a singer to go about this in a variety of ways, which is why, like the album’s (impressively bad) cover art, Hysteria is a colorful blend.
Hysteria was released on September 18. (iTunes)