In Brief: Not a bad example of mildly inventive CCM pop at the time, but it’s probably only worth a listen nowadays for those insatiably curious about Katy Perry’s past.
I almost wasn’t gonna review this one. Honest. As I’ve perused through the collection of old CDs that had been gathering dust on my shelf for endless years, wondering at certain oddities how my tastes could have been so amusingly different back then, I figured that the self-titled debut of one Katy Hudson would be rather a forgettable thing to listen to after all these years, something only worth remembering because it brings some of us delight that it brings a pop music mega-star now known as Katy Perry a bit of self-conscious shame. Since Perry first hit it big in 2008, I’ve commented to several people that I actually own the one “Christian” album she made when she was a teenager, but it shouldn’t be too surprising that I haven’t actually gone back and listened to it until now. It’s not like I ever had any great affection for the thing. I thought of reviewing it way back in 2001, but due to the overblown production and Katy’s frustrating habit of oversinging nearly every syllable, I couldn’t think of much to say about it, other than to rip off a slogan that some credit card company was using at the time: “Just Because You Have the Power Doesn’t Mean You Should Use It.” What would have been the point? Nobody cares any more, and I’ve already given Perry’s two mainstream pop albums a thorough enough reaming to make it clear where I stand. She wasn’t making great music back in her CCM days, either, but I’ll still take it over what she’s doing now. There. Case closed, and you can laugh if you want at my preference for naive Christian music over supposedly sophisticated modern pop with a bazillion-dollar budget behind it.
But then my curiosity got the best of me. I wanted to know if, in the ten years this forgotten relic had been in Epinions’ database, someone had reviewed it – either when it was new, or in retrospect after her mainstream success. So I did a search. Nope. Not a single review. Just a helpful link saying that this item is on sale at Amazon for… TWO HUNDRED AND SIXTY FOUR DOLLARS??!?!? HOLY EUPHEMISM, BATMAN! Seriously, that’s what a few exceedingly rare “collectible” copies are going for over there. It’s probably similar on Ebay and anywhere else people figure they can make a buck off of a pop star’s embarrassing past. I can’t blame ’em. There are tons of young fans out there eager to get their hands on all things Perry. I just wonder how they’ll react when they actually hear it. Keep in mind that this thing only sold about a hundred copies when it was brand new. Part of it might have been because short-lived label Red Hill didn’t seem to know how to market the poor girl, I guess. But that miserable failure to even get as much exposure for an aspiring young artist as she might have gotten handing out CDs herself after playing at a friend’s bar mitzvah or something has somehow translated into super-rare collectible status for an album that’s more likely to be put on display by a die-hard Perry fan than it is to be enjoyed for what modest amount of merit the music actually has. The irony of the situation amuses me endlessly… and it makes me seriously think that the memories attached to this disc can’t possibly outweigh the profit margin I’d pull in from a CD that I found in some Christian bookstore’s bargain bin for literally about three bucks. Shoot, if I’d have known at the time, I’d have bought those one hundred copies myself!
Anyway, so what about the music on this thing? Aside from the fact that listeners who most likely don’t share the evangelical worldview that Katy had at the time getting an earful of Christian music cliches (which they will, and even though I agree with some of it, I think the presentation could use some work), could someone actually conceivably enjoy listening to Katy Hudson? Surprisingly, yes. Its flaws are quite glaring, but once you get over those, there are actually some nice surprises on this album. Katy was somewhat of an anomaly in the year 2001, probably her label’s answer to teen singers like Rachael Lampa or Stacie Orrico who represented somewhat successful attempts to pull in a young audience with a hint of urban flair and just enough of a personal touch to make you feel like the kid had some creative control. Katy actually wrote or co-wrote everything here – which is still true of her current material, as much as I may hate most of it. So while you’re hearing a lot of nice things that her parents (both pastors) would easily approve of, there’s at least an attempt to put it in her own words, which results in the record having more personality than the average teen singer would be expected to at the time. Also, despite the extremely heavy presence of programming, string arrangements, and a bevy of studio musicians, this album doesn’t really fit into a predictable pop/rock mold. For all of her label’s faults, they at least gave the people responsible for recording this album some real leeway to experiment. At times, her producers actually came up with some beautifully ornate soundscapes for her to sing to, even if in all cases they’re a far cry from how these songs sounded when I first heard Katy all by her lonesome on a stage with an acoustic guitar. It’s surprising that the basic attitude and melodic framework of each song doesn’t get completely lost in the shuffle.
Ironically, the thing which threatens this the most isn’t a group of overbearing producers and label execs – it’s Katy’s own voice. I guess it was the trend at the time, to demonstrate how these young powerhouses could sing circles around the competition, but Katy’s habit of bending nearly every word into a ridiculous number of syllables renders her vocal performance as a muddled warble most of the time. On a few songs, she develops these cute affectations that fit the character of the song, and as cheesy as it all is, I just have to smile. But for the most part, she should have backed off and played it a little more straight. As a vocalist, I think she finds a better balance nowadays – I still don’t think she’s the world’s greatest singer or anything, but there’s a reason why even folks like me who hate Katy Perry’s songs with a passion have to admit that they’re insidiously catchy. Either she discovered her ear for a solid pop hook later in life, or she was just paired with the right people – either way, these early songs are more notable for how stylized and different from one another they all are, much more than they are for being fun to sing along to or, in some cases, for being memorable performances on Katy’s part.
So, with all of those flaws acknowledged, how could I still prefer Katy Hudson to Katy Perry? The truth is that I’m simply less embarrassed for her here. When she’s in more explicit “declaration of faith” mode, this is probably as off-putting to some folks as her more blatantly sexual material is to me currently (this is less because it’s about sex than because it generally demeans people in the process – I’m not a prude, but I figure the person you want to sleep with deserves some basic level of respect), and she’s in her more vulnerable, “Can you still find reasons to love me?” mode, the results actually come across as less cliched than most of her more “innocent” love songs do nowadays, largely because I don’t feel like she’s trying to be all things to all people by including them. I want to make it clear that I’m not judging Katy for supposedly “turning her back” on her faith just by not really singing about it any more… far as I know, it’s still something that matters to her, and she’ll be upfront about it when asked. I just think it’s easier to live with the awkwardness and the trying things that don’t entirely work when a singer is young and trying to find herself than it is when she’s a fully cognizant adult trying to walk the tightrope between shocking and tittilating her audience and coldly calculating what each corner of her target demographic wants to her. Awkward teenage Katy Hudson is simply more authentic than adult Katy Perry trying to live out her Teenage Dream. There, I said it.
1. Trust in Me
As dramatic strings and a driving rock beat kick in, it’s easy to think that maybe we’ll be treated to something full of aggression and attitude, but this one actually turns out to be rather run-of-the-mill for Christian pop music at the time. The background vocals here are plentiful and Katy’s doing her darndest to run circles around all of them, and that combined with the generic lyrics (“But You said, don’t worry/For I’ve healed the blind man and I’ve set the captives free/And You said, don’t worry/For all you’ve gotta do is put your trust in Me”) expose it for what it really is – an inspirational adult contemporary-type ballad trying to masquerade as something cooler. That’s kind of a harsh criticism, and I don’t thoroughly hate the song, since the deeply layered arrangement shows that the production on this album isn’t going to be predictable even when the lyrics and melody are. But a lot of the hangers on who just decided to check this album out from sheer curiosity are likely to be put off by the voice of a preacher at the end of it, which of course is none other than Katy’s father.
The first track transitions rather awkwardly into this one, which sounds like it’s gonna be a power ballad at first due to its slow tempo and its murky percussion and moody sound effects. Then the beat switches to sort of a half-hearted rock rhythm at the chorus, twice the speed of the verse and yet somehow still sluggish. It’s a song about a person’s false sense of security in their own self being slowly dismantled by God – good idea for a song, but the way Katy writes about it, it’s a little too similar to “Trust in Me”, thematically speaking. Katy’s overly eager warbling makes a lot of the lyrics difficult to make out – I kid you not when I say that I’ve had this album for ten years and only now did I read the lyrics are realize that she was saying “This self will bleed” in the chorus. Guess I never cared enough to dig that deep into what she was singing. It’s a bummer that this one starts out on such a weak note, but the album does actually get better from here.
3. Search Me
This was one of the first songs where Katy really managed to grab my attention when she performed it acoustically, and while the album version is much more polished, it does so in a way that fits the mood of the song. There’s a confessional, Psalm-like nature to it that reminds me of Katy’s mentor at the time, Jennifer Knapp, while the mix of acoustic and electric instrumentation and the drum programming remind me of some of Rebecca St. James‘s better moments. The lyrics are all about being deeply known and loved by God, despite all of Katy’s deep, dark secrets. (I can only presume she had fewer of them back then, but regardless, I believe these lyrics would still be true today.) The deep, slow bass licks and the expansive yet not-too-cluttered production give off a sort of “inner space” vibe that I’ve always found compelling. Probably the best track on the album.
4. Last Call
This is one of three songs on the album that Katy wrote all by herself, music and lyrics, with no outside help. It’s also one of the most quirky and aggressive ones, with the drums and guitars once again giving off more of a rock vibe, but there are horns and organs and some pretty funky bass licks threatening to wander into the poppier end of jazz. This sort of musical concoction actually fits Katy’s manic vocal delivery pretty well – she almost has to over-sing this one because it’s about being so down and out and desperate that a late night call to some sort of hotline is the only shot she’s got left. That’s a bit weird when I think about it, not only because she actually lists a real phone number (899-3833… clearly she never heard about the furor over that “Jenny” song back in the 80s!), but also because she seems to indicate that God is on the other end (“Take my call, collect my change, ’cause Lord I’m calling on Your name.”) Thinking about that line also reminds me how quaint it is that songwriters would still reference payphones back in those days when cell phones were just starting to make some headway. But then I guess a song lyric about using the last minutes in your plan to call the Almighty wouldn’t be quite as dramatic. (Also? Payphones being outdated never stopped Maroon 5.)
5. Growing Pains
As the abrupt ending of “Last Call” leads into the prancing piano and cutesy melody of this one, I’m reminded that Katy was a born entertainer. We’ve got a total showtune here, and despite my inherent dislike of musical theater, I have to admit that this one fits her personality perfectly. It’s one of her wordiest songs, in which she’s unafraid to admit that she’s a weird, awkward, and often unwise teenager, but that it’s all part of a process of being molded and shaped by God. Rather than sounding like this process would turn her into a rigid, faceless person, one gets the feeling as the strings swell and Katy does these amusing little vocal one-offs (at one time a male chorus responds to her, just to make it clear that they’re being intentionally cheesy here) that spiritual growth doesn’t need to mean a loss of unique personality. I could do without the bizarre crying noises in the background when the song reaches its bridge, but other than that, it’s a pretty solid performance. It hits you out of nowhere in a good way.
6. My Own Monster
The back half of the album is where things start to get a bit tedious since almost all of the songs are over five minutes long, which is a tad much for a pop album, but at least this string of songs starts off well. This one’s the second of the songs Katy wrote by herself, and her minor key melody gives it a very vulnerable feeling, which is appropriate since it’s about a young child having bad dreams. The strange backmasked sound effects and voice of children speaking in a foreign language at the beginning help to give it that disoriented-dream like feel, though it slowly develops into more of a guitar-based rock ballad. The piano is really the dominant instrument that keeps the melancholy mood front and center, too. Listening to this one, it’s hard not to be reminded of the movie Monsters, Inc., which came out the same year, but Katy had written the song several months if not a year or more due to the film’s release. Plus the idea of needing God to spare you from the monsters wouldn’t really fit that film’s story anyway. I love the dramatic crescendo this one reaches near the end, with its searing guitar solo (even if it is a bit shoved back in the mix due to there being one too many things going on), and how all of the different sound effects add to the kid’s-nightmare ambiance. This would be my #2 favorite after “Search Me”. My only real criticism is that the chorus seems incredibly redundant: “Hold me close/For I’m so tired of holding myself/So very tired and tired, tired and tired/Just hold me.” I think telling us once that you’re tired would have been sufficient, Katy.
The transition from “Monster” into this song is quite well thought out – while the DJ effects and other samples heard above the opening rhythm are a bit obtrusive, there are these two children’s voices calling “Katy! Katy!”, as if to wake her from her bad dream. This opening, which appears to have a laid-back, hip-hop sort of beat, takes a really sharp turn into the most aggressive rock song on the record, one in which Katy quite loudly laments her habit of turning her back on her Savior. It’s surprisingly confrontational for such a young artist who might otherwise have been groomed to sound like the “good girl” – the imagery of laughing at Christ’s suffering and spitting in His face as He carries the cross really sounds like it’s coming from someone who had taken ownership of her own struggles. (It’s worth noting that even today, with her “naughtier” lyrics ruffling the feathers of conservative listeners, she’s actually said that blasphemy is the one thing she can’t abide and won’t use for entertainment value like some other artists do.) There might be a bit too much going on in this song – I’m not really sure if we need the synthesizers and the sampling and the horns bleating seemingly at random as the song gets more intense. This song might have actually benefitted from a starker arrangement – one that still kept the aggressive drums, guitars, and vocals, but that cut out all the other stuff. Too many cooks in the kitchen, I guess.
8. Faith Won’t Fail
This one has a bit of a long, muted intro, with some digitized vocal bits swirling about in the background that don’t even sound like they’re saying anything coherent, but it sets us up nicely for a surprise as another strong drum track kicks in. (Despite this album’s overuse of electronic sounds at times, I do like the combination of live and programmed drums on a lot of these songs, and this one is probably the best example of that). This one’s a total “good girl” song that might even be a bit difficult to believe nowadyas, because it’s all about how Katy will face a bunch of temptations but her faith will prevail over them. Well, it’s really more that God will prevail over all that stuff, so I guess it raises the question of who’s really doing the work there. I get what she’s trying to say and I’d even go so far as to predict that it will prove to be true in the long run. (What can I say? As much as I like to make fun of Katy’s lyrics and her on-stage persona nowadays, I’m still optimistic about her as a person.) This one has such a rousing chorus that it feels like the only thing missing is a Gospel choir. It just has that sort of victorious cadence to it. It’s also one of the catchiest things on the album – the faster tempo doesn’t give Katy as much room to warp every syllable of every word like she so often does. Truth be told, I could picture Crystal Lewis singing this one.
This one is more down-tempo and has a sadder mood to it – I have to say that Katy does well in minor-key mode. The opening piano melody almost makes it feel like a bit of a “torch song”, as if she’s holding out hope for a lost soul who can’t find their way home. But the programming here is a bit intrusive and it almost seems to be a pale imitation of some of the album’s better tracks when it once again turns to a rock ballad at the chorus. Still, it’s one of the most personal and well-written songs on the album, as Katy seems to be imagining what God would say to the person, offering nothing but unconditional, unstoppable love “Always remember that it wasn’t that long ago/I stilled the oceans, I moved the mountains/To say I love you.” Some of Katy’s vocal vamping on this one does seem a bit excessive, as if she hadn’t yet learned where you could break the rules and bend the pitch of a note to something outside of the song’s natural key. Not that I would know the rules for that, either – I just know when it hits my ear in a strange way.
10. When There’s Nothing Left
The album’s final track is its slowest, starting off rather muted, as if it’s coming through a telephone with some interference from another call bleeding in, which I guess sets the mood for the song, but the gratuitous panning is a bit much. I suppose it’s fitting enough for a grand finale on which seemingly no trick is left untried by her producers. As the second verse kicks in, it’s almost got this relaxed, Norah Jones sort of feel to it (though I wouldn’t have known who Norah was to make the comparison at the time), with soft drums, piano, and a bit of slide guitar. I think it would have worked well to stick to that genre for the whole song (and it’s a long one, at six and a half minutes), because it shows a bit of maturity and willingness to try things beyond just what’s calculated to appeal to Katy’s target audience. But I guess they didn’t want to deprive Katy of a big finish, because just when you think the song is winding down, the drums kick in loudly and suddenly it gets all Disney on you, with swirling strings and Katy’s seemingly endless improvised vamping, giving it this syrupy sweet, romantic feeling that I suppose would get some CCM fans all teary-eyed because it’s such an unabashed love song to Jesus, but I can’t help but feel it’s way over the top. Once again I’m stuck between thinking this is a great vocal performance by Katy, and thinking she’s bending and twisting a lot of the words beyond recognition. Well, like pretty much everything else on this album, at least it’s got a truckload of personality. It seems that’s been the one constant throughout Katy’s career.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Trust in Me $0.25
Search Me $1.50
Last Call $1
Growing Pains $1.25
My Own Monster $1.50
Faith Won’t Fail $1.25
When There’s Nothing Left $.75
(And yeah, you’re never gonna find a copy at that price or even double it, so if you’re really that curious, get it from iTunes or something.)
(Ha. Like there’s any official Katy Perry site out there that wants to actually acknowledge this album.)
Originally published on Epinions.com.