Elliott Yamin - Let's Get to What's Real (2012)

Elliott Yamin
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There is a price to pay for achieving your initial fame on American Idol: for a period of time, your career is not your own.  Becoming a finalist on that show typically comes with strings that include both some Idol control over your initial post-show recordings as well as an inherited audience that also directs a young artist in a certain direction.  Consequently, singers ranging from Katherine McPhee to Jordan Sparks to Clay Aiken started their post-competition careers with records that were both safe and aimed at mass audiences, and bearing a style that nothing to do with the singers’ own artistry.  Some of the Idol artists have never broken out of that mold, but some, like Kelly Clarkston, Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry, have transcended the one-dimensional direction of Idol and gone on to both success and creative growth.

There is a price to pay for achieving your initial fame on American Idol: for a period of time, your career is not your own.  Becoming a finalist on that show typically comes with strings that include both some Idol control over your initial post-show recordings as well as an inherited audience that also directs a young artist in a certain direction.  Consequently, singers ranging from Katherine McPhee to Jordan Sparks to Clay Aiken started their post-competition careers with records that were both safe and aimed at mass audiences, and bearing a style that nothing to do with the singers’ own artistry.  Some of the Idol artists have never broken out of that mold, but some, like Kelly Clarkston, Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry, have transcended the one-dimensional direction of Idol and gone on to both success and creative growth.

Elliott Yamin, a finalist on American Idol season five, made it clear on the show that he was a classic soul man, paying homage to artists like Donny Hathaway whenever he could. But his debut album was more in the contemporary pop mold that fit the AI audience, strong enough to get radio airplay and solidify an audience, but only personal enough for him to put his vocal imprint on it, not his soul.  He continued in that vein on his less interesting, lower selling sophomore album, Fight For Love, and Yamin’s fans were left wondering if the talented singer would ever be able to release an album that really reflected who he was as an artist.

In 2012, at a precarious point in his career, Yamin signed with Purpose Music/E One Entertainment with one goal: To issue an album that expressed who he is, sales be damned. And the new Let’s Get to What’s Real does just that, covering areas only hinted at during Yamin’s Idol stint but feeling like a completely authentic musical autobiography.

The disc opens with “Gather Round,” an upbeat jam that sounds like the offspring of Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party.” That it is like nothing Yamin has previously recorded is not accidental, but is rather a warning for listeners that the voice may sound familiar this time around, but little else will.  Yamin is a child of 70s pop and soul, and Let’s Get to What’s Real serves as a travelogue of the musical styles of that decade.  The disc covers broad territory, ranging from Elton John mid-70s piano-driven pop (“Virginia“) to edgy, wah wah-filled urban soundscapes (“Downtown”), to horn-drenched funk (“Thinkin’ Bout You”) to blue-eyed soul (“Enough Love”) to classic blue-lights-in-the-basement balladry (“Let’s Get To What’s Real”).  There are only a few songs that would have been out of place on the AM dial 40 years ago, the most important of which is “3 Words,” a radio-ready modern pop song obviously placed on the album for 2012 radio programmers. It is an outlier on Real, but it is such a strong song and so well performed that it ends up being a welcome addition.

The one constant in this rather eclectic album is that Yamin can straight up sing.  His voice was strong and soulful when he was competing on Idol six years ago, and he sounds absolutely confident and convincing on Let’s Get to What’s Real, even when covering such a variety of styles. He handles the big hook on the inspirational “I’ll Be That Bridge” (written by "Lady Marmalade" and "Penny For Your Thoughts" composer, Kenny Nolan) with ease and turns the title track into one of the more memorable slow jams of the year, worthy of comparison to classic soul ballads like AWB’s “A Love of Your Own” or Cameo’s “Sparkle.”

Some of the songs on Real certainly work better than others, and stylistically the album could stand to be a bit more cohesive. But in the end it is exciting to watch this talented singer move past the handlers and the market studies and simply sing his heart out. With Let’s Get to What’s Real, Elliott Yamin breaks past the label of just another American Idol contestant and successfully transforms his identity from “singer” to “artist.”  He’s never sounded better and there is enough there in the development of his musical identity to give a good listen now and, more importantly, to get us excited about the next chapter in his career. Recommended.

By Chris Rizik

 
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