The churning beige waters of the folk-based female singer-songwriter are deep and lucrative indeed, but tough to distinguish oneself amidst. A kooky edge and vocal inventiveness has helped Regina Spektor gain distinctive colour, Shania Twain made billions by delving sporadically into country pop and Tori Amos has done surprisingly well out of playing the pig-suckling nutjob.
Sara Bareilles - high school contemporary of Maroon 5 and native of the fittingly named Californian town of Eureka - has shifted a million units by spinning on a precise mid-point of all of these approaches (although her 2007 iTunes-giveaway megasmash Love Song certainly helped). And this third album continues her undizzy pirouette. "I'm just a basket case, that's what I do," she croons - remarkably sanely - on Basket Case, neatly setting out her quirkstress stall according to the first rule of Freaky Fem-Folking for Idiots. King of Anything bitches along joyfully, lobbing barbs and put-downs at an arrogant beau with all the sneery sass of That Don't Impress Me Much. And the radio-nuzzling choruses are dolloped on generously: Not Alone lilts along with a jazzy skip redolent of Lily Allen, while Uncharted stabs Spektorishly at a piano along to Feist-y country pop hooks. Hooks that intensify on Gonna Get Over You, which might as well be called Man, I Feel Like Shania.
True to genre, Bareilles lathers cringe-worthy cliches over every tune - she doesn't know how to keep a hold of her heart (Hold My Heart), doesn't fancy being alone much longer (Not Alone), is happy to follow you into the light if you look into her eyes (The Light), but is planning to walk away if he doesn't say he's sorry (Say You're Sorry), at which point she'll cry until the end of time (Let the Rain). Whether he creeps into her dreams and holds her in his arms until the morning light is sadly undisclosed here (my guess: he probably does), but even swathed in such hackneyed heartache, her tweaks towards the fringes of girl-with-piano culture do indeed lift Bareilles above the morass of Fiona Apples, Norah Joneses and Nelly Furtados that are her true bedfellows. Plus, there's a songwriting subtlety at the core of Let the Rain and Bluebird that almost - almost - lives up to her Modern Mitchell billing.
Kaleidoscope Heart? Dandelion Mind, Bill Bailey would call it in his recent stage parody of such airy-fairy, gossamer-minded folk fluff. But this is one mainstream marshmallow with an acidic coating worth a lick.