Elle Varner's debut album is titled, "Perfectly Imperfect," but she should have called it "Perfect." The newcomer's 11-track set is pure excellence, full of R&B gems that are silky, smooth and jamming.
Her voice - raspy at times, soft at others - is the focal point of the album as it glides over songs and adapts to the different beats, which include hip-hop ("Only Wanna Give It to You," ''I Don't Care"), funk-soul ("So Fly") and contemporary R&B ("Welcome Home").
"Stop the Clock" is flavorful and addictive, thanks to its dramatic beat and the sound of handclapping dominating the chorus. "Refill," a Top 10 R&B hit, is velvety and could easily be a TV jingle.
Producers Oak & Pop, best known for their work on Nicki Minaj's "Your Love" and Big Sean's "Marvin and Chardonnay," helm most of the songs, though Varner's father, Jimmy Varner, co-writes and produces some of the tracks, and her mother, Mikelyn Roderick, works as a vocal producer and background singer. Varner, a graduate of Clive Davis' music school at New York University, co-wrote each song, and she's got a skill with the pen.
On "Not Tonight," the 20-something is magically vulnerable, singing about being too scared to approach a man she's interested in. She starts off slow, building her vocals and words, and it makes for a touching track. She's also exposed on "So Fly," a perky outtake about being insecure about her weight and image. On the song, the big-haired, hipster-looking Varner - in a beautiful tone - asks: "How can I ever compete with 34 Double D's?"
With that voice, and with this album.
AP Music WriterDeclaration of Independence
Colt Ford's new album "Declaration of Independence" proves that his breakthrough success doesn't mean he'll start playing by contemporary country music's rules. The title not only emphasizes that he records for an independent label, it underscores he has the freedom to speak his mind in ways many corporate-groomed country stars are too cautious to do.
Ford isn't the first to blend country with rap and hard rock, a reflection of what can be found on the iPods of young, rural Americans these days. But Ford flaunts this polyglot style more aggressively, more seamlessly and more entertainingly than others.
His obsessive references to guns, home cooking, mama, moonshine, Republicans and small towns support how often he calls himself a redneck. To his credit, in songs such as "Room At The Bar," Ford reiterates that he embraces all cultures, races, ages and body sizes. It's a point he brings home by including Wanya Morris (of Boys II Men), Darius Rucker and Lamar Williams Jr. among his duet partners (others include Jason Aldean, Laura Bell Bundy and Jake Owen).
In doing so, Ford not only illustrates that country music can continue to draw on other contemporary musical styles, he also shows that modern-era rednecks can mix with the rest of the world, too.
For the Associated PressIs Your Love Big Enough?
LIANNE LA HAVAS
Warner Bros. Records
"You broke me, and taught me to truly hate myself," Lianne La Havas sings on the airy song "Lost & Found." "Unfold me, and teach me how to be like somebody else."
It's a particularly dark and heavy hook, leaving the listener to wonder what kind of relationship the singer had been in. But La Havas, the 22-year-old London newcomer, takes the song to even greater heights thanks her husky vocals, which makes "Lost & Found" not just amazing, but earth-shattering.
And there are more stunning songs like it on her debut album, "Is Your Love Big Enough?"
The piano tune "Gone" is another highlight, where La Havas is over love, singing lyrics like: "I heard enough fairytales back in my youth, so just stop biting your nails and take the painful truth, you just look ridiculous in disguise, yes I've found you out, this is my last goodbye."
On the album opener "Don't Wake Me Up," with its layered vocals, La Havas sounds like a mad woman singing about her "only love" and "only counterpart." Then there's the line: "They say some things are better left unsaid, but I'd take my life to stay in your bed."
Lyrics like that stand out throughout her outstanding debut, finding their way into songs that blend elements of pop, soul and folk. La Havas is singing about the many facets of love: On most songs she's cooing about lost love, sounding scorned, or ready to move on. But on others she's happy, like the pleasant "Au Cinema" and "Age," a tune about falling for a man "old enough to be my father."
La Havas wrote or co-wrote all of the songs with the exception of the Scott Matthews cover "Elusive." Matt Hales, the English singer-songwriter who performs his own songs under the alias Aqualung, co-wrote eight of the 12 tracks and produced the entire album.
What they have crafted is not just one of the year's best debuts, but one of the year's best albums.
AP Music Writer'Sparkle' Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
In 1976, composer Curtis Mayfield and singer Aretha Franklin teamed for the soundtrack to "Sparkle." The film, a trifle about the pitfalls of rising to stardom, was promising but its songs (the righteous, romantic "Something He Can Feel," the heated "Hooked on Your Love" among them) highlighted the best aspects of both R&B superstars' effortless range. Thirty-six years later, the movie has been remade into something less kitschy than the original, yet it's the sounds of this "Sparkle's" new stars, "American Idol" victor Jordin Sparks and the late Whitney Houston doing her final work, that get the headlines.
Rightly so. Along with the inclusion of several Mayfield tunes from the first "Sparkle" glowingly updated by Sparks ("Look Into Your Heart" is particularly earthy), there are stormy songs penned by R&B lover man R. Kelly for the new film's stars to tackle. Cee-Lo Green eats up the robust "I'm a Man" with his usual gruffly soaring gusto, while Houston and Sparks fill Kelly's Motown-like "Celebrate" with dueling diva dynamism. Houston, though, gets the last word with "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," based on Jesus' words in the Gospel of Matthew. The always-emotive Houston makes each phrase her own.
The Philadelphia InquirerCut the World
ANTONY & THE JOHNSONS
If Antony Hegarty had a dime for every goose bump he's raised with his emotive voice, he could pay off the national debt. His haunting, expressive cry gets the backing of the Danish National Chamber Orchestra on his new album "Cut the World," which was recorded live in Copenhagen, Denmark. On it, songs from Antony & the Johnsons' four previous albums are gloriously worked over to spine-tingling effect. "You Are My Sister," "I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy," and "Kiss My Name" all shimmer magnificently in the orchestral light. "Another World" - Hegarty's conservationist plea to save the planet while we still can - is so profound here, listeners may actually take up its cause. Antony's voice has always had the power to move mountains. On "Cut," it moves something altogether more impressive: people.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Lost in Transition
Sixpence None the Richer
Tyger Jim Records
Matt Slocum, co-founder and guitarist of Sixpence None the Richer, says the group has fully changed since they broke up in 2004 and reunited three years after. But that doesn't reveal itself as a metamorphosis in the songs on their new album, "Lost in Transition."
After the split, Sixpence released an EP and a Christmas album, but they officially return with their first full-length album, delivering a familiar sound while not daring to break into any new territory.
The album opener, "My Dear Machine," is a decent track, with some fine and fuzzy guitar work highlighted by lead singer Leigh Nash's smooth and strong voice. Unfortunately, the song gets overpowered by horns near the end.
After this somewhat strong start, the Nashville, Tenn.-based band runs into an inevitable truth for most '90s-era bands looking for a renaissance. Hits are hard. And their yesteryear radio staples like "Kiss Me" and "There She Goes" are tough to replicate for the listener's sweet spot. New tracks like "Failure" and "Give It Back" are musically passable, but are ultimately wordy misfires that tell us nothing of the transformative time that is allegedly the underpinning of this album.