Lemar - The Letter (2015)

Lemar
lemar-theletter.jpg
Click on CD cover
to listen or purchase

Lemar’s raspy, lustrous tenor has always been able to astonish and excite. Talent the man has well in-hand. However, the hazel-eyed UK troubadour’s music? Well…that has largely depended on the project. The multiple Brit and MOBO Award-winner who first came to prominence 13 years ago during his third place win on the UK talent show, Fame Academy, is back. Despite being one of the most enduring of the global talent show winners overseas, the lackluster reception for the trendy yet treacle pop of 2012’s Invincible, following the decline in critical and commercial praise that met 2008’s The Reason, continued to raise industry questions of both artistic and commercial viability for an artist who has sold a collective two million plus records throughout his career.

Lemar’s raspy, lustrous tenor has always been able to astonish and excite. Talent the man has well in-hand. However, the hazel-eyed UK troubadour’s music? Well…that has largely depended on the project. The multiple Brit and MOBO Award-winner who first came to prominence 13 years ago during his third place win on the UK talent show, Fame Academy, is back. Despite being one of the most enduring of the global talent show winners overseas, the lackluster reception for the trendy yet treacle pop of 2012’s Invincible, following the decline in critical and commercial praise that met 2008’s The Reason, continued to raise industry questions of both artistic and commercial viability for an artist who has sold a collective two million plus records throughout his career.

Following a now familiar playbook of the concerned artist, The Letter, Lemar’s sixth solo studio album, sees a return to the covers that made him an instant hit with fans at the beginning of a career that has since had as many peaks as it has valleys, with 2008’s best-selling The Truth About Love representing its apex. Now the question is, does this project represents another peak or a valley?

Beyond not coming off as karaoke, the challenge with doing a covers album when you’re not quite 40 years old is that it immediately brands you as both a veteran and someone whose prime original recording years are already behind you. For an artist of a certain age, it can appear a savvy move to reclaim relevance in the ageist marketplace, resurrecting careers like Michael McDonald’s and Rod Stewart’s. For someone considerably younger and still relatively commercially viable, it has replaced the gospel or jazz album as an anxious symbol of growing desperation by a maturing artist who is too old to sell kiddie pop, but not quite old enough to be laid across a piano crooning the Great American Songbook. When an artist is still as young-ish, attractive, and vocally strong as Lemar, it’s hard not to determine that the latter is more in play. As much as a head-scratcher as it might be, particularly when the songs are rendered without considerable reinterpretation or reimagining, it is full circle for an artist who first turned heads with his emotional reading of Lionel Ritchie and Al Green. However, it feels a circle too soon to close.

To be fair, the grit and the emotions of Lemar’s instrument are the saving graces of an album whose commercial prospects are in need of much grace. Indeed, Lemar sings everything beautifully, this not being his first time at the rodeo. Lemar has always had a cover or two on his projects over the years, from Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” on 2003’s Dedicated to The Darkness’s “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” as the bonus track for A Time To Grow, but this perhaps boasts more than any. There are a few originals in the mix that blend seamlessly in feel with the covers under producer Larry Klein’s (Norah Jones, Tracy Chapman, Joni Mitchell) capable hands. Despite the skill and talent on board, none of it, not the expert singing or production, seems to be enough to pull it out of the realm of the pedestrian. What is missing the most are imagination and the go for broke risk-taking vocals that push these familiar cuts to the next level, hallmarks of Lemar’s most cherished works.

The project’s P.R. boasts that The Letter is a collection of more obscure, less covered material, but Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me” (Klein’s least completely derivative production), Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” (perhaps the most pedestrian of the bunch), Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” (done in a purist cruise ship style, if there ever was one), The Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” (blank stare), Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” (Brian McKnight wore it better), and Diana Ross & The Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together”—here done in a rambling rose country style (Really, Lemar? Really?) -- are hardly obscure cuts. These are fairly major hits that have been well handled by musicians across several decades, including a rack of #1 hits. Only Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song” (one made even more famous by Elton John), might qualify as a bonafide sleeper and really only on the U.S. side of the pond. Of the above mentioned, only “Love Song” and “Bring On Home To Me” manage to approach something than can be termed fresh and engaging beyond being merely competently sung and solidly produced.

On The Letter the stunner is actually a Lemar original, the unassuming piano ballad “Never Be Another You.” Clear and unfussy, the melody is strong and the stirring performance is one that actually pushes Lemar the furthest in its vocal execution. Next in line might be Lemar’s more smooth, Las Vegas take on “The Letter,” which bridges the dark rock original by The Box Tops with the blues rock version by Joe Cocker, and comes out somewhere in between fairly unscathed and almost shining.

The single from the project, “Love Turned Hate,” an original composition by Lemar is a decent enough bit of soul pop, as is his “Higher Love” with Lemar at least daring to enter his increasingly less confident upper register on both. Still, neither middle-of-the-road tracks are going to push Lemar to the rightly acclaimed heights he achieved with what now appears to be his creative and commercial climax, The Truth About Love. As for whether or not The Letter represents a creative peak or valley, let’s just say it represents more of the same safe choices we’ve seen from Lemar over the last nine or so years, one of more promise than fulfillment. Mildly recommended.   

By L. Michael Gipson

 
Featured Album - Will Downing - "Romantique, Part 1"
Featured Album - The Soul Rebels - "Poetry In Motion"
Album of the Month - Plunky & Oneness - "Afroclectic"
Choice Cut - Chris Jasper - "For The Love of You"

Leave a comment!