"21," Adele (XL)
Adele's "21" producers, including the legendary Rick Rubin, miscalculated how best to harness her voice.
There's a risk in not restraining a powerhouse vocalist like the English singer-songwriter: Relentless bluster makes for a muddled listen. So Rubin and company figured the best way to reel her in was to insert her into various genre contexts. As a result, Adele sometimes sounds manipulated out of her comfort zone, and though she's capable of handling the stylistic shifts, she doesn't quite own them.
Adele, 22, is a force of nature, but her conviction hasn't yet caught up with her pipes. And her overwrought love songs tend to feel more like mopey high-school crushes than the stuff of mature relationships. That's the case when she's belting through the obligatory piano-and-strings track "Turning Tables," going through the motions against a gospel-ish choir on "Take It All" and wringing out the notes on a country-flavored "Don't You Remember" that wastes good lines such as "I know I have a fickle heart and a bitterness and a wandering eye and a heaviness in my head."
By the same token, the acoustic cover of the Cure's "Lovesong" feels more like a lark than an artistic statement, and the faux-Sheryl Crow "I'll Be Waiting," though well-executed, leaves Adele stranded somewhere between Nashville and Memphis.
A gutsy voice like this needs gutsy arrangements, and the earthier the production on "21," the better she responds.
For instance, she rollicks along with the tribal rhythm, fiery backing vocals and earnest swamp/blues strains of "Rumour Has It," and she's a rowdy lovechild when old soul and traditional rock merge on the timeless "One and Only."
However, nowhere is she more emphatic than on the blistering opener, "Rolling in the Deep," where she warns with plainspoken drama, "Don't underestimate the things I will do."
Clearly, Adele can do just about anything, musically. But that doesn't mean she should.
Rating (five possible): 3-1/2
"GOODBYE LULLABY," Avril Lavigne (RCA)
Avril Lavigne seems stuck in time with her new "Goodbye Lullaby."
Much has happened in the near-four years since her last release, "The Best Damn Thing" -- she divorced the Sum 41 guy, for example, and a new crop of women singers popped up -- but Lavigne still sounds like the teen who broke through with sassy pop/rock almost a decade ago. The music landscape has changed, and if the 26-year-old Canadian singer is going to climb back into the picture with "Goodbye Lullaby," she'll be the elder stateswoman among such chart and sales dynamos as Taylor Swift (21), Ke$ha (24) and Lady Gaga (24).
Yet Lavigne's sound is dated, her voice is immature and her themes are mostly vapid and unappealingly morose.
After a tinkling, treacly and inconsequential opener, "Black Star," "Goodbye Lullaby" finds Lavigne re-harnessing her former buoyancy with the subsequent "What the Hell," an anthemic jaunt reminiscent of her hit "Girlfriend."
And then, collapse.
"Goodbye Lullaby" struggles to find its groove or its character. The track "Smile" turns upside down with an awkward rhythm, cuts like "Push" and "Everybody Hurts" are formulaic and Lavigne, who doesn't convey any emotional heft, is embarrassingly both shrill and hokey on "I Love You" and "4 Real."
"WASTED IN JACKSON," Lauren Pritchard (Universal)
Tongues must have been wagging in Jackson, Tenn., when word got out that Lauren Pritchard, the would-be pride of the West Tennessee town, named her debut CD "Wasted in Jackson."
Apparently she thinks she's too good for her hometown, though the title track softens the blow with its warm arrangement as she sings about Jackson, "It's like being stuck in Disneyland ... But there's not a single good ride."
The 23-year-old vocalist left the Volunteer State years ago for Los Angeles and eventually wound up in New York playing a role in the musical "Spring Awakening."
Pritchard's problem is that she's a middling singer -- she's unsteady on the low end and piercing in the high notes. Although her voice is textured, and she endows her delivery with a fair bit of soul, she rarely breaks out with anything of substance.
An exception is her full embrace of the dark strains of "Going Home" ("Where do I go if I'm not going home?") and her startling appearance on "When the Night Kills the Day" (produced by Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons), where her suddenly throaty resonance makes her sound like an entirely different singer.
(Contact Chuck Campbell of The Knoxville News-Sentinel in Tennessee at www.knoxville.com.)
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