Orianthi Panagaris, who chooses to just use her first name in her career, is best known as one of Michael Jackson's two guitarists for his This Is It Tour, as well as the subsequent movie (read my review here). Only 25, she has already amassed a highly impressive resume, with additional collaborations with Prince, Mary J. Blige, a guest solo on Adam Lambert's (of American Idol fame) recent album, and an appearance with Carrie Underwood at last year's Grammy Awards that created plenty of buzz (that's where I first saw her). She stands out because of her prodigious guitar skills...and it doesn't hurt that she's easy on the eyes. Those skills led her to quit school at 15 to focus on her career, and at that same age she played her first ever opening gig for Steve Vai, one of her primary influences. Three years later, Orianthi met and jammed with her other guitar hero, Carlos Santana.
Her independent 2007 debut, Violet Journey, showed promise, but leaned somewhat to the unrefined side, not surprising given her young age and meagre recording budget. 2009's Believe is a much more polished and assured collection of songs, backed by a major label (Geffen, a subsidiary of Universal Music), which also brings with it the resources for stronger material. Writing partners for Orianthi on her latest include heavyweights like Desmond Child (who has written for Bon Jovi, KISS, Katy Perry, and Kelly Clarkson) and Andreas Carlsson (whose songs have been recorded by Celine Dion, Bon Jovi, Britney Spears, and Carrie Underwood).
Believe also brings the rock a little more than its predecessor, to its benefit. Musically, it's quite similar to the power pop of Pink or Kelly Clarkson, with the same focus on highly catchy choruses. Orianthi also throws in some flashier guitar solos, just to add her own signature. She has the ability to shred out on her six strings, yet doesn't overdo it with the guitar histrionics, except on "Highly Strung", a hopped-up instrumental duet with Vai that is supposed to be over-the-top. Vai's own unique guitar voice overpowers Orianthi's, causing the track to sound more like a Vai tune, but Panagaris does well to nearly keep pace with the virtuoso.
The heavier tracks generally fare a little better than the mellower material, notably with first single "According To You", "Bad News", the male bashing "Think Like A Man", and "Suffocated" (a cover of a song by some band I've never heard of called Sound The Alarm). That's not to say there's not strength in the slower songs - "Drive Away" and "God Only Knows" are primo power ballads, with the former featuring some tasteful blues-style guitar work.
Vocally, Orianthi sounds fairly good on the album, although based on some of the "pitchy" live performances I've watched online one wonders how much was done in the studio to compensate for the disproportionate amount of talent between her voice and her guitar playing ability. One other lingering nag with Orianthi is that she borrows a little too heavily from Santana for both her style and guitar sound on the less rocking tracks. Many of the guitar leads on Believe reproduce his phrasing and distinct, warm guitar tone almost exactly (she even uses the same type of Paul Reed Smith guitar as him). Hopefully future releases will find her steering away from this direction and cultivating a more distinct sound of her own, which her impressive talent should more than allow for.
View the video for "According To You":