Melinda Doolittle - Coming Back to You (2009)

Melinda Doolittle
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When we last saw Melinda Doolittle, she was exiting -- too early -- the 6th season of American Idol, perhaps lacking the natural young beauty of Jordan Sparks or the hip swagger of Blake Lewis, but having established herself as perhaps the most polished and formidable singer in the history of the franchise.  After an enviable career as a backing singer for stars from Michael McDonald to CeCe Winans, it was clearly time for Melinda to step to front and center for her anticipated debut album.

When we last saw Melinda Doolittle, she was exiting -- too early -- the 6th season of American Idol, perhaps lacking the natural young beauty of Jordan Sparks or the hip swagger of Blake Lewis, but having established herself as perhaps the most polished and formidable singer in the history of the franchise.  After an enviable career as a backing singer for stars from Michael McDonald to CeCe Winans, it was clearly time for Melinda to step to front and center for her anticipated debut album.

So it is most surprising that it has taken nearly two years -- and eternity in the world of AI contestants -- for Doolittle to release Coming Back to You on HiFi Records.  Unfortunately, in that time she may have lost the momentum of her AI showing, as another season of artists has not only come and gone on the show but also released albums ahead of her.  But those who reveled in her gutsy, often bluesy performances on the show haven't forgotten her, and have continued to pine for her solo recording debut.

Unfortunately, while Doolittle earnestly tries on Coming Back to You, not much else goes right with the disc.  An album clearly aimed at capturing the rising star of exciting, often brilliant retro-soul championed by Joss Stone, Amy Winehouse, Raphael Saadiq and Ryan Shaw, Coming Back to You instead comes off both dated and contrived. Odd song selection consistently mars the disc, with song after song that would have sounded absolutely square even four decades ago.  Worse yet is the distractingly over-the-top, throw-in-the-kitchen-sink production by Mike Mangini, who mirrors more the overstatement of his work with the Baha Men than his more nuanced work with Stone. 

Indicative of the album's problems is the first single, "It's Your Love," a 50-style ballad, complete with big Gospel choir, clanging bells, organ, strings and a Spector-heavy wall of sound that overpowers with brute force any element of subtlety in the song.  The sad thing is that the tune itself is solid, and Doolittle singing is spot-on, if lacking some of the character of her onstage performances. But she's simply fighting for the spotlight among all the noise around her. 

The title track fares better, though again Doolittle regularly finds herself in a death match with Mangini's heavy handed boardwork.  And her Gladys Knight-worthy performance on "The Best of Everything" is wasted on a so-so song (and is that "Ave Maria" being played in the background?).  The best moments on the disc are where the full-figured production matches the song, such as on excellent mid-tempo "I Will" or the remake of Aretha's "Wonderful." But those moment are, unfortunately, fleeting and in the minority on a disc that simply doesn't meet the expectations raised by Doolittle's consistently wonderful performances on Idol.

The biggest question when Melinda Doolittle finished her stint on American Idol wasn't whether she could sing.  She could, and like few if any who have ever been on the show.  No, the questions were whether, after a career as a backup, she had the insight and vision to fashion a career as a solo artist, and whether on record she would display the character that drove Carrie Underwood and even Sparks to success or whether, like LaToya London and Clay Aiken, she would be unable to translate her stage comfort to personality on vinyl.  Unfortunately, those questions are still largely unanswered.  Hampered by mediocre material and often overbearing production, Doolittle only occasionally carries the moment on Coming Back to You.  Instead, she comes out of the process still seeming to search for a compelling musical identity: is she simply a very good cabaret singer, or can she be a legitimate leading lady?  Other artists have shown that a creative, engaging career can be established by bringing the best elements of the past forward, but Coming Back To You is not the vehicle that accomplishes this for the talented Ms. Doolittle.  Let's hope she gets another chance. 

By Chris Rizik

 
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