Pop singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles is reportedly dropping out of view for most of the rest of this year to write and record her next album. When an artist releases an EP accompanied by such news, you generally expect it to be a “throwaway” record—something just to tide over the fans so they don’t forget said artist while he/she is out of the limelight. You don’t expect it to be a mini-epic.
Surprise, surprise. Sara Bareilles is toying with us. Instead of being a throwaway, Once Upon Another Time is a five-song EP that practically out-classes her entire previous body of work.
For this project, Bareilles called on her friend, fellow singer/songwriter Ben Folds, to take the production helm—and for the most part it was a remarkably smart decision. From the opening notes of the opening title track, you know Bareilles is taking you on a completely different journey than she has before. Gone are the bubble-gum pop hooks and piano riffs; instead, you have Sarah Bareilles singing these smooth, jazzy, a capella vocals for the entire first half of a five-and-a-half minute track—and it’s completely captivating. From there, the music evolves into rich strings and piano reminiscent of a movie soundtrack. The journey continues through the next four songs, a 25-minute excursion into a side of Sara Bareilles’ artistry you’ve never heard before.
To be clear, Once Upon Another Time isn’t a “retro” record, like when Rod Stewart started singing the standards, or like Christina Aguilera’s Back to Basics album. At times, the music reminds you of days gone by, but really, it has more of a timeless feel to it than anything else. It isn’t Sara Bareilles turned jazz diva or 40’s nightclub singer, but more like the same Sara Bareilles, only deeper and richer.
Ironically, the only song on the EP that really feels like it doesn’t belong is the most Ben Folds-ish sounding track. Track 4, “Sweet As Whole,” lays a tongue-in-cheek, profanity-driven lyric atop an otherwise classy piano-heavy backdrop, and sounds completely like something Ben Folds would have written–and perhaps he did. (The title itself is a clever concealment of said profanity; say it quickly a few times and you’ll hear it.) It’s humorous and mildly entertaining, but out of place in the context.
Track 4 aside, Once Upon Another Time lives up to its name by transporting the listener to another world for a few minutes, musically speaking. It represents a complete shift of direction for Sara Bareilles, and for me personally was the most pleasant surprise of the season. With this little EP, Bareilles has demonstrated that she’s capable of being far more than a pop icon destined to be irrelevant in a few years’ time. It remains to be seen whether this is just a diversion or an indicator of things to come. All I know is, if this is a teaser, I can’t wait to hear the next record.
ALBUM RATING: 4 Stars (out of five)