Lea Michele, Louder
The business of turning a theater-born star into a bona fide pop act isn’t as easy as it looks, and Lea Michele knows this from seeing her Glee co-stars, Matthew Morrison and Kristin Chenoweth, make failed attempts. The TV musical has proven Michele, who plays Rachel Berry, isn’t just a flash in the pan; this girl can actually sing. And she can sing anything, from Rihanna to Streisand to The Beatles. Her debut, then, wisely puts her sterling voice front and center, but doesn’t forget that to have a radio hit you need a soaring melody, and you should probably have Sia too. A strategic move considering how prolific the hit machine’s become, three of the album’s singles were all, in some part, written by Sia.
The defiant “Cannonball,” produced by Stargate and resembling Beyoncé’s “Halo,” is an empowering anthem; the beautiful “Battlefield” builds into the kind of sad power ballad Celine Dion would have a field day with; and armed with an urban thrust is the mid-tempo “You’re Mine,” a declaration of eternal love Michele dedicated to her late boyfriend, Cory Monteith. When Michele picks up the pace on “Don’t Let Go” and “On My Way,” you imagine the entire Glee cast dancing behind her. She sings her butt off, but the stock beats are tailored for a TV show choir and not a solo career.
The last song leaves the biggest impression. Given the context of Monteith’s death, which inspired her to write “If You Say So,” the song is a haunting piano ballad made even more heartbreaking given its real-life candor. This is Michele at her saddest and most vulnerable. It’s the kind of personal touch Louder could use more of.
Amy Ray, Goodnight Tender
Amy Ray’s solo career was bound to end up here. The singer-songwriter’s been inching her way to the prairieland ever since 2001’s Stag, her first Emily Saliers-less album; her fifth break from the Indigo Girls, Goodnight Tender, goes all in. This is her farm album. Rooted solely in the sounds of the Deep South, its dozen tracks are fully immersed in country culture. Pedal steel, fiddle, banjo and mandolin frame the folk, gospel and Appalachian sounds, which, of course, wouldn’t follow in the genre’s footsteps if they weren’t pensive and raw, and didn’t completely wreck you.
“Broken Record” stings with the lonesome plea of wasted love, and the title track—as lullaby-like as you’d imagine from a track called “Goodnight Tender”—unfurls into a sweet, empathetic story-song. “The Gig That Matters,” a spiritual toe-tapper, and the reflective “Anyhow” conjure the image of Ray, guitar in hand, singing on the porch with a bottle of Jack at her side.
These are simple songs from a simple time, something she ponders while looking forth to her last days on the dreamy “Oyster and Pearl.” By honoring the great traditions of the country recipe, and with her singing sounding like it’s been rolled across the dust and gravel of a dirt road, Ray’s Goodnight Tender captures an authenticity that’s been missing from country music for some time.
Ghost Beach, Blonde
“Moon Over Japan,” the launch pad for this Brooklyn-based duo’s debut, could run over the closing credits of just about any John Hughes movie—that’s how ’80s it is. It’s got psychedelic funk, soaring synths and a whimsical dreaminess, which means it’s everything you want from the MTV era. From the danceable sun-kissed “On My Side” to that awesomely retro guitar riff on “Too Young,” Josh Ocean and Eric “Doc” Mendelsohn’s 12-song release is an exhilarating rush of youthful energy and neon glow.
Robert Ellis, The Lights from the Chemical Plant
Even though Robert Ellis is a country gent, you won’t find him singing about his truck or beer-guzzlin’ with the boys. This is quiet, sensitive introspection that sounds wise beyond Ellis’ 25 years—and not just lyrically. Ellis introduces bossa nova, jazz and classic pop to the country palette, so while rooted in the genre—especially given that Ellis’ voice is about as twangy as they come—it’s also clear his influences aren’t all in the family. It’s not always a knockout, but it’s always refreshing.
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com.