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|0.0 || | November 14th 12|
After doing a background check on Melinda Doolittle, during the early stages of American Idol's sixth season, something did not quite add up. Why would a singer so skilled, already something of a proven industry veteran -- with backing vocal credits on albums by Aaron Neville, CeCe Winans, Jonny Lang, and several others -- need to go through such a grueling process to get noticed and land a recording contract? As Doolittle continued to thrive on the show, that became more difficult to understand, and it also became increasingly evident that it might be best for her to not win the whole thing. With any luck, she'd fall just short of taking the prize, land on a sympathetic label, and team up with a professional producer who would tease out her strengths without worrying about platinum sales. And that, unexpectedly enough, is what happened. Coming Back to You is a set of throwback soul that has as much appeal as any other likeminded release from the past couple years, including Nikka Costa's Pebble to a Pearl and Raphael Saadiq's The Way I See It. All the promise Doolittle showed on national television as a powerhouse vocalist is fulfilled, and whatever she lacked as an assured performer -- she often seemed modest to an excruciating extent -- has vanished. She sounds like she's on her fifth or sixth album. Supported by producer Mike Mangini (Imani Coppola, Joss Stone, Elliott Yamin) and a fixed backing of session musicians that includes drummer Cindy Blackman, horn player and arranger Tom "Bones" Malone, and multi-instrumentalist Adam Pallin (Coppola's partner in Little Jackie), the album is technically all covers, yet it's only the most seasoned music fans who will recognize any of the material. "Walkin' Blues" and "Dust My Broom," a pair of songs written by blues legend Robert Johnson, get appropriately gutsy, strutting looks. Interpretations of three traditional pop songs penned by Sammy Cahn in the '50s, possibly sops to American Idol's eldest viewership, are impassioned but merely passable. Most of the remaining material, if not all of it, originally appeared on albums released in the last 12 years from the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Celine Dion, Aretha Franklin, and Faith Hill. It's a ragtag assortment, for sure, and there's only so much enlivening that can be done to some of it. But it's all cast in warm, Southern-tinged soul, and it has a unified feel. Doolittle is nothing if not steady, making all the right moves at the right times, sounding at once like a seasoned pro and someone who feels everything she sings while never forcing or faking anything out. It's one of the smartest, most likable albums from an American Idol alum yet.
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