It's a little surprising Haley Reinhart made it as far as she did on American Idol. She was always good but never quite a front-runner, and the point where she became one was the point at which Idol's country vs. country finale was all but pre-ordained. That said, Idol finishing order isn't everything. If you've got the right material and fanbase, even a modest finish can get you not only a record deal but a solid careers. Ask Daughtry or Jennifer Hudson.
Reinhart did in fact sign with Interscope last year and just released "Free," the lead single from upcoming album Listen Up! Naturally, the stakes are high. The first post-Idol single is when former contestants have to prove their following exists outside the built-in audience and controlled situations that Fox gives them. It's when they become either a viable (if possibly midlist) recording artist or someone mentioned only by recappers. Which will happen for Haley? Listen below.
To "Free"'s immense credit, it actually sounds like a Haley Reinhart song, not something a songwriter rummaged up from his demos folder. The latter is depressingly common. Early front-runner Pia Toscano's debut single, "This Time," while performed well enough, sounded less like Pia than what you'd get if you fed "midtempo pop-R&B track" and "woman scorned" to a songwriting machine. It flopped. Country kids Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina's singles did better, but they too seemed rehashed--in Alaina's case, literally; "Like My Mother Does" was originally a Kristy Lee Cook album track.
"Free," on the other hand, doesn't make Haley more anonymous but more distinctive. The track's jaunty piano and torchy vocals are closer to say, Fiona Apple, Adele or possibly a funkier Jason Mraz than nameless radio fodder. No, these aren't exactly outre or uncommercial artists; Apple and Mraz are both either currently having or poised for comebacks, and Adele's commercial appeal is so seemingly boundless that finding the "next Adele" is almost mandatory for talent scouts and singing competitions. But Reinhart happens to do this jazzy, slightly retro thing well. On "Free," she gets to growl a bit, coo a bit, and trip along the syllables in the bridge in a way that's close enough to scatting. She gets off a pretty good hook, too, with her delivery of "want you to be, want-you-to-be... free." As a showcase of Reinhart's vocal strengths, the single could hardly be better.
Are there a few glitches to work out? Sure--almost every immediately-post-Idol track has some. In "Free"'s case, the percussion's a bit tinny, the production a bit too slick; the backing vocals don't enter for the chorus so much as butt into the mix. "Free" is most compelling when Reinhart gets to emote unencumbered on the verses or--again--the bridge. Hopefully album Listen Up will have more of these moments and less frippery and B.o.B features. Either way, there's nothing stopping Reinhart from stripping things back down live. She's at least got one song that can stand alone.