Single Review: Vanessa Carlton “White House”

White Houses
Album: Harmonium
Year: 2004

For her new album Harmonium, Vanessa Carlton is digging deeper and growing as a songwriter and musician. It’s evidenced by her interview with Music Edge where she talks abut the producing and engineering process with a well-informed, understanding manner. From the interview: “We (her and boyfriend Third Eye Blind lead singer Stephan Jenkins) did a series of tests, prior to recording, where we were A-B-ing analog tape verses Pro Tools (digital), and we couldn’t tell the difference at the end of the day… we ended up doing was using a mixing board similar to what a lot of the old Zeppelin tracks were mixed on…we were able to get a very warm, easy-to-listen-to mix where it didn’t come across as ‘icy’ sounding. We did use analog tape to track several of the instruments, but for the majority it was Pro Tools.We wanted it to sound like a record recorded on analog—that was the goal, at least.”

It’s that willigness to learn and get out of the fem rock mold (a term I made up to distinguish false feminism rock like Avril Lavigne and Michelle Branch from the true empowerment rock like Ani Difranco and early Liz Phair) which will give her career some longevity.

In “White Houses,” Carlton explores the first, close relationships teenagers have in their lives and how they relate to each other. But it also implies that things on the outside may not seem as they appear. In the first verse, she’s hanging out at a friend’s house and criticizing her body, like all young teenaged girls do. A group of her close friends are all there, too and how they think that their friendship is never going to end. (“Crashed on the floor when I moved in/This little bungalow with some strange new friends/Stay up too late, and I’m too thin/We promise each other it’s til the end”). They play a game of Spin the Bottle with boys that they know aren’t honest. However, Carlton seems to have a suspicious feeling that it can’t stay the way it is forever (“Now we’re spinning empty bottles/It’s the five of us/with pretty eyed boys girls die to trust/I can’t resist the day/no, I can’t resist the day”). The subtext is is how she sings it rather than writes it.

She recalls her friend crazy friend Jenny dancing around and laughing so hard at an inside joke that beer comes out of her nose (“Jenny screams out and it’s no pose/’Cause when she dances she goes and goes/Beer through the nose on an inside joke/I’m so excited, I haven’t spoken”). She compares herself to her best friend Jenny and wonders why she isn’t more like her. She thinks her own intelligence could be a strength, but she’s still doubting herself. The realization that it’s all going to over soon once school starts lingers with her (“And she’s so pretty, and she’s so sure/Maybe I’m more clever than a girl like her/The summer’s all in bloom/The summer is ending soon”).

She’s glad to be around people and not lonely. She uses the ‘white houses’ to symbolize innonence and the safety of growing up in suburbia. The secrets here being her group of friends choices and regrets. (“It’s alright and it’s nice not to be so alone/But I hold on to your secrets in white houses”).

She is not without her own wrong choices and regrets, though as she tells about her first boyfriend. She’s uncomfortable with the guy she is dating, although she feels like she’s in love (“Maybe I’m a little bit over my head/I come undone at the things he said/and he’s so funny in his bright red shirt”). She loses her virginity to him in the backseat of his car. The loss of her virginity, though, gives her mixed feelings (“sneak into his car’s cracked leather seat…
Boy, we’re going way too fast/It’s all too sweet to last”).

She doesn’t want the time to end as she feels love or something like it when she goes over to her friends’ white houses (“Love, or something ignites in my veins/And I pray it never fades in white houses”).

The loss of her virginity, for her, is one of those times she wished she could take back. She implies that they just did it, perhaps because there was nothing else to do (“My first time, hard to explain/Rush of blood, oh, and a little bit of pain/On a cloudy day, it’s more common than you think/He’s my first mistake”).

In the last verse, she thinks that they grew up too fast and moved on from each other too quickly. It hurts for her, even though she tries to nonchantantly play it off. She’s not the same person anymore and knows she can’t go back. But she vows not to go back, but she will remember those times with her friends fondly. She hopes that her old friends will remember her, too and the memories they had. (“Maybe you were all faster than me/We gave each other up so easily/These silly little wounds will never mend…So I go, and I will not be back here again
I’m gone as the day is fading on white houses…In my heart is the five of us/in white houses/and you maybe you’ll remember me/what I gave is yours to keep/in white houses”).

This song struck a strong chord within me, as cheesy as that may it sound. However, I can see a lot of myself in it, though. Although I can relate to the last verse the most: once you meet a guy within a clique, your time starts ticking for how long you’re going to last. It changes the dynamics of the friendships (from my experience). It seems like when the head girl doesn’t have a boyfriend but then somebody else underneath does, it kind of elevates the other person’s status. Before you know it, friendships become messy and dramatic.Then the relationship goes awry and it’s hurts too much to have to see those people and talk about them. But like Carlton’s character in the single, I remember the memories but I do not desire to hang out with those people again. That chapter of my life is over and you have to move on.

The only change I would make is have less instrumentation and make it only the piano. The piano would create intimacy and give the song’s more emotional power. It’s a minor quibble, though.The song shows Carlton has improved immensely and becoming a performer with substance.

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