Orianthi’s name has been on the tip of the guitar world’s tongue for what feels like an eternity. The starlet has bounced between big name tours (backing up Carrie Underwood, Alice Cooper and, briefly, Michael Jackson) without translating her wantonly dexterous assault into definitive solo success. Orianthi has adapted her sound so seamlessly to the wants of others that, six years and two albums into her solo career, we’re still no closer to understanding who she really is.
Perhaps a change of scenery was in order? In 2011 she joined forces with Dave Stewart deep in the heart of Nashville. Recorded at Blackbird Studios using local session musicians, Heaven In This Hell hopes to recapture the earthy inspiration that reinvigorated the former Eurythmics man’s solo career. Orianthi was certainly beaming with enthusiasm when she spoke to Guitar Planet in 2012 (“Yeah it’s rock, voodoo, blues, super commercial, just big guitar riffs. Very 60’s, 70’s inspired, lots of raw energy”) while Dave Stewart told us what we all secretly wanted to hear: “she always wanted to play rock music, but she got put into a box by the record company”.
If the goal was to put some dirt under Orianthi’s nails then the album opener and title track certainly achieves that. The country nods are satisfying but not overt as Orianthi toes the line between glam/pop stomp and the earnest thud that underpins the best Miranda Lambert and Pistol Annies’ tracks. The aesthetic shift is loose and thrilling. “You Don’t Wanna Know” expands from the desperate swagger of a lonesome drinker metronomically digging her heels into a deserted bar-room floor, into a solo so glitzy and grandiose it could only be delivered from a revolving platform in the middle of a sold out arena.
This strange hybrid between understated rootsy values and brazen pop immediacy grants Heaven In This Hell a ferocious sense of momentum. Unfortunately, despite “Fire’s” meaty punch, the album begins to fray when rollicking stomp subsides and Orianthi’s vocal comes to the fore. Her delivery is more than serviceable but she struggles to say anything that cuts deeper than standard pop rock cliché.
The soaring but safe riff and the noodling expanse of “If U Think U Know Me” requires an irrepressible hook but instead settles for the drab and disappointing “If you think that you know me, put your hands up and show me”. It’s a nagging deficiency that undermines a promising LP. The more Orianthi attempts to impress upon her audience that she is a unique tortured rock’n’roll outsider - the more platitudinous and synthetic she appears.
This frustrating antithetical sensation is most acutely felt on “If U Were Here With Me”; a dreamy watch-the-world-pass-us-by slowee that insists “This ain’t no temporary love, like the one’s they show on TV. This is the real thing baby”. It’s a crafty hook that’s unfortunately undermined by an MOR arrangement so devoid of edge that it sounds exactly like the type of indistinct ballad that does soundtrack the soporific love depicted in teenage soap operas.
To her (and her producer’s) credit even in its most syrupy and generic moments Heaven In This Hell retains a strong melodic core. The balladry might fail to engage the emotions but the hooks rarely miss their mark. After a torrential start Orianthi settles into a lethargic mid-90s pop slump that’s punctuated by the slick riff and insatiable hook of “Frozen” and the strangely satisfying Believe throwback “Better With You”.
Heaven In This Hell certainly succeeds in unleashing Orianthi’s inner bad arse and finding a more naturalistic canvas for her considerable talents, but the next step is clear: she needs to find the words to rival her shrewd and often instinctive playing.
Buy If: You want to hear Orianthi embrace some Nashville grit and break the shackles of pop rock sheen.
Skip If: You want music that moves more than just your toes.
Best Track: “Heaven In This Hell”
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