One of Leona Lewis’ biggest assets is her voice – a rich, honeyed vocal that can wrap its way around any lyric and instrument light years beyond any of her contemporaries. It has been the siren’s calling card since her stint on the original UK version of The X Factor and her 2007 debut album Spirit. That album, designed to update the MOR-schmaltz that Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston occupied in the 90s, wonderfully displayed her glorious pipes with worldwide hit “Bleeding Love”. After the relative disappointment of her last record Echo, Lewis eschews the chugging, formulaic throwaway ballads for tempo and small experiments with fuzzy electronics on her newest album, Glassheart. Lewis brilliantly teams up with producer Fraser T. Smith (Adele, Taio Cruz) to helm much of the album that takes a distinct foray into dance music.
The first single “Trouble”, co-written by Emeli Sande, is a sleek homage to Massive Attack-like trip-hop with a bed of swelling strings, chronicling an emotional break up. Both the single-worthy title track “Glassheart” and “Come Alive” are pacey, looming numbers – a wall of Lewis’ lilting vocals sliding against eruptions of volcanic, feverish beats. On “Shake You Up”, Lewis lets loose on the summery Rodney Jerkins-produced track which wouldn’t sound out of place on any of Rihanna or Katy Perry album.
Even when the songs venture into the balladry of her first two records, they are less meandering and more progressive. Both “I to You” and “Fireflies” channel her influences of Kate Bush and Tracy Chapman as she respectively evokes mournfulness and marvel into her performances.
Glassheart benefits from increased writing contributions from Lewis as well as an injection of her personality, two key aspects that have been eclipsed by her walloping vocals. She sounds engaged and exuberant, even on quiet and muscular ballads like track “Fingerprint”. The album is a unified set of songs from an artist who has finally stepped outside of her comfort zone.
While Amy Winehouse preps for a long-awaited release (hopefully within the year, Duffy on a hiatus and Lily Allen all but retiring from music, two established females from England return to the fore to produce some of 2011’s best moments in R&B and Soul music.
When Marsha Ambrosius (from Liverpool, England) embarked in a solo career in 2007, she began building her foundation as a songwriter/producer through her lauded mixtapes (save for the horrid Neo Soul is Dead) that expanded on the initial sound she captured with Floetry. She landed a production deal with Dr. Dre and his Aftermath Entertainment imprint and wrote/produced and sometimes appeared on tracks for major artists like Jamie Foxx, Fabolous and Alicia Keys. Her solo debut album, Late Nights and Early Mornings, is an intimate, silky, honest set of songs that explore different angles in romantic relationships. The buzz single “Hope She Cheats (On You With a Basketball Player)” is a brash kiss-off to a man her bruised her ego after a bitter break-up.
Ambrosius shows her versatility, self-penning and producing more than half of the album on her own – the best being “I Want You to Stay”, the second written track intended to be recorded by the late Michael Jackson. The other highlight is the unexpected cover of the downtempo gem “Sour Times” by trip-hop group Portishead. Production is also supplied by Just Blaze (the first official single, “Far Away”, accompanied by a a video in response to the recent string of suicides within the gay community), Dre&Vidal (the tearfully bare “Your Hands”) and up-and-coming producer Canei Finch (a swelling cover of the Lauryn Hill cover “Lose Myself”).
With the buzz that preceded the album and it’s numerous pushbacks, the expectation was fulfilled with the album debuting at #2 on the Billboard Hot 200 albums chart.
But while Marsha Ambrosius is exploring the joys of make-up sex with her lover on her debut album, singer-songwriter Adele dives deep into another crippling break-up while absorbing some of the responsibility on her sophomore album.
Adele Adkins (from Tottenham, London, England) was signed to XL Records after her three-song demo was lauded and circulated all over MySpace. In 2008, her first record (titled after the relationship/break-up she experienced at that age) was a contemporary set of songs that fused jazz, soul and folk into a blend that complimented her already personal songs and brassy vocals. The album was an unexpected success in many markets, most surprisingly in the United States.
But her second album goes a step further. While the recurring theme on 19 was pointing the finger in the aftermath of a breakup, 21 explores the progression of accepting responsibility and coming to terms with another broken relationship.
She explodes on the foot-stomping “Rolling in the Deep”, a heavy -knocking blues/gospel/rock hybrid which finds her barreling and growling at an errant ex-lover, as if she were provoked for the final time. She raises an eyebrow while channeling rock-and-roll/soul singers more than twice her age on the equally thumping “Rumour Has It”. But when the tempos descend, Adele truly shines. “Turning Tables” and “Someone Like You” are the most affecting and stirring tracks on the album – capturing the feeling of helplessness from heartbreak and remembering a lover who has moved on to another on both tracks, respectively. Almost every track on the album encapsulates the natural emotions during a break-up – pain, regret, sadness, anger and betrayal, all with a sense of finesse, class and strength.
The progression of the album’s production and composition (sometimes rich and high-gloss and other times, acoustic and stripped) could be credited to Adele’s willingness to open up to her collaborators. On this stronger set of songs, she co-writes her material with the likes of OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, Briish producer Fraser T. Smith, musician Dan Wilson and the legendary knob-twiddler Rick Rubin, among a few others. Rick Rubin’s contributions, like always, are proved to be the most significant, especially on the tender bossa-nova rendition of The Cure’s “Lovesong”. Using an arrangement that was intended for Barbra Streisand, the track is most likely to be a mainstay at wedding receptions, coffee shops and everything in between.
While 19 was bogged down by too many of the same colors blending together over the course of the record (folky guitars, similar tempos and lyrical circles), Adele has pilled on the dramatic production on 21, toughened her Dusty Springfield-esque tone and lyrical flourishes to produce an essential soundtrack for the heartbroken.
(written in March 2011 for The Arrowhead at San Bernardino Valley College in San Bernardino, California)