Thursday, February 07, 2008

Album Review: Adele - 19 (4 / 5)

With all the hoopla surrounding her, Adele seems almost destined to fail, for how could she possibly live up to the hype? She topped this year's BBC Sounds of 2008 poll, the insider survey to identify who the hot acts of the new year will be. Last year that honor went to Mika, who at the time had a brilliant debut single "Grace Kelly," but whose album Life in Cartoon Motion was only so-so. Fast-forward a year and Adele also has a hot track, "Chasing Pavements," and thankfully a good album to back it up.

19 is a soulful creation, showcasing Adele's powerful voice. It's not a magnum opus--most of the songs are about a young woman pining after boys--but why should it be? The most common advice to young writers is "write what you know," so why should singers be any different? There's a good deal of experimentation--Adele trying on different styles to see what fits--and quite a lot of it works very well.

"Daydreamer" is a very sweet, lovely little song. The simple acoustic guitar backing really allows Adele's voice to shine. And she has an amazing voice for someone of only 19. I've read this song is about a girl who discovers the guy she's interested in is bisexual--seems a stretch from listening to it, but okay. "Best for Last" also has a fairly simple arrangement of bass and guitar, before kicking up the tempo with a piano and drum backed chorus.

"Chasing Pavements," in contrast, has a big, layered production with a big chorus. No surprise that it's turned it into the radio hit it was destined to be. It's a good song, but against the leaner opening numbers it sticks out a bit. The high-octane production reaches its peak with the Mark Ronson-produced "Cold Shoulder," which borrows heavily from the style of Massive Attack's classic '90s piece, "Unfinished Sympathy," complete with strings and tinkly synthesizer effects. It's a cool song and a testament to Adele that she sounds as good amid this swirl of sound as she does on the minimal "Daydreamer." "Crazy for You" returns to that soulful minimalism, pitting Adele's vocal stylings against just bass guitar. She displays a lot of range on this song, as well as control, which is nice to hear.

"Melt My Heart to Stone" is a soulful, old-fashioned ballad. Adele's voice squeaks a bit to add emphasis over the organ-like keyboards. "First Love" is another minimalist ballad, replacing the guitar with xylophones. "Right as Rain" is old school R&B/pop. These songs aren't bad, but I don't like them as much as the first five tracks, creating a bit of a sag in the middle of the set.

She more than makes up for it on the next track though, a remake of Bob Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love." The song is so good, and Adele sounds so great on it. This must be a future single. It's too lovely not to be. What can I say? I'm a sucker for the combination of piano chords and strings interweaving a good melody. Toe-tapping "My Same" follows, then upbeat, pop-oriented "Tired."

The final track is another standout. "Hometown Glory" is a potent song. Don't be deceived by the subtle opening piano notes. They quickly morph into thundering chords underpinning a sincere ode to London; quite the contrast to Lily Allen's cutesy "LDN."

One accolade she could do without is all the "next Amy Winehouse" labels. Apart from being a young British woman with a big voice she's nothing like Winehouse. Those expecting a Back to Black-like album will disappointed, as 19 lacks that album's high-concept old-school-meets-new-school take on R&B, to say nothing of Winehouse's dirty mouth. Only "Right as Rain" would really sound at home on a Winehouse album, more likely Frank than Black to Black. Not that 19 is sanitized, but Adele isn't pretending to be anything other than your typical 19-year-old girl with boy troubles. A public debate over whether to go to rehab doesn't appear to be in the cards. Not yet anyway.

Best: Make You Feel My Love, Chasing Pavements, Daydreamer, Hometown Glory, Crazy for You, Cold Shoulder, Best for Last

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