This homeschooled, Protestant-reared, convert to Catholicism obviously takes her craft seriously. Her lyrics are thoughtful, her melodies pretty without suggesting chick-flick soundtracks, and her singing indicative that although she's tempted to over-sing, she's disciplined enough not to. She could be more disciplined. Seven songs over four minutes are too many. And, as tasteful as "Wherever You Go" is, lyrics sung from God's point of view strain credulity. What doesn't: her transformation of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" into a 21st-century anthem.
Knowing that Birdy (née Jasmine van den Bogaerde) will turn 16 in May isn't necessary to appreciate her debut, but it adds to the impressiveness. Besides not sounding 15, she doesn't sound as if she's trying not to. "But what does a 15-year-old, even a precocious one, have to tell me?" you ask. Nothing, hence her sticking mainly to songs written by older people. And although she probably hasn't "seen fire and rain," she performs a social service by universalizing the sentiment away from James Taylor.
The media hook this time around is that by recording these self-consciously retro North Carolinians live in the studio, Buddy Miller (wearing his producer's hat) has captured why they're such a hit at folk festivals and other live gatherings. Well, maybe, except that live gatherings also have crowds-a factor that adds greatly to the overall effect-and this album doesn't. On the instrumentals, the absence of a communal vibe doesn't matter and would probably just get in the way. Most of these songs, however, feature singing.
Twenty years after going solo, this former Jam and Style Council leader finally makes a good album. The simplest explanation for why it succeeds where its forerunners failed is that it lives up to its title. Not Jam punky, Style Council jazzy, or solo blue-eyed-soulful dull, it delivers one "sonik" kick after another, shifting deftly from electronica to acoustic folk with strings to quite a bit in between. The lyrics, meanwhile, give him something to sing (which he does rather well) if not necessarily to say.
If, as Roger Friedman has argued, Lionel Richie's Tuskegee (Mercury Nashville) missed debuting at No. 1 on Billboard's Top 200 because of artificially inflated sales figures for Madonna's MDNA, it has also benefitted from the controversy. Without it, there'd be nothing remotely newsworthy about the album, as it's merely the latest example of an over-the-hill performer squeezing a million or two more dollars (enough, in Richie's case, to cover his IRS debt) from his back catalogue.
Does Tuskegee sound good? Of course: It's Richie's biggest solo and Commodores hits. Does it sound as good as other Richie best-ofs? Of course not-not with Richie splitting vocal duties with country duet partners ill-suited to pop-soul balladry. Could anything have saved the project? Yes, a rendition of the Commodores' 1980 single "Jesus Is Love." But it only hit No. 34 on Billboard's R&B chart and missed the pop charts altogether. So, really, what were the chances?