The debut album by American Idol season six finalist Melinda Doolittle is another in the recent string of throwback soul albums that reach after the spirit of Motown, Philly, or other vintage R’&‘B production styles from US pop music’s glorious past.
Of course, it’s not news any more that American Idol runners up typically make better, more professional albums than the winners. But it’s also not news that the wildly popular television singing competition is simultaneously silly and a reliable way for some talented performers to get enough renown to put out records. Doolittle, who was known during her run on the show as “a former back-up singer”, constantly had to prove to the judges that she had the voice and charisma to step out in front of a band. Of course she had the voice—she used to back up the likes of Tina Turner and the Winans. And in many ways the ability to sound good on a record has little to do with personal charisma or looks.
The surprise here is that Coming Back to You is not only a fine recording by an AI finalist and another choice slice of “retro-soul” in the new millennium, but that Doolittle and her production team have found soulful grooves, a strong live-band sound, and a set of tangy compositions for this very, very good singer to sink her teeth into. If, for younger listeners, it brings to mind the recent retro-soul efforts of Amy Winehouse and Duffy, then maybe it’s worth noting that Doolittle does not seem like a reheated, overseas simulacrum of soul but, rather, the real thing.
Why is she the real thing? It’s not just that she’s American or that she’s African-American or even that she would appear to have legitimate roots in singing gospel music, although those things certainly help. Rather, Doolittle brings a genuine sense of musical personality to this music. Her voice is lonely when it has to be, it’s nasty when it wants to be, and it never boasts pointless affect or flourish where those things should not be. Doolittle approaches the material organically, as if she’s been singing in this style her whole life. Because the style was birthed in the 1960s and 1970s, that is likely true.
So, this does not seem like the case of an AI performer having been handled by a producer to make a record that would be popular rather than natural. In fact, despite the Winehouse/Duffy retro-soul hook, this sounds very much like the album Doolittle might have made ten or twenty years ago if she’d had the chance. Now, however, she’s ready, and the recording is that much better for it.
After a string of funky and soulful tracks, it’s a particular thrill to hear “I’ll Never Stop Loving You”, an old-style ballad with a string section and an arrangement that might have suited Sarah Vaughan. Doolittle sings the song with moans and cries in all the right places, but without the silly high notes or melisma that American Idol singers are so likely to pull from their vocal-tic-laden back pockets. Although the production on Coming Back to You is rich, it never feels over-slick or lush. Even tunes like “I’ll Never Stop Loving You”, with its strings, seem appropriate and even simple.
This is not to say that the producer, Mike Mangini (Digable Planets, Joss Stone, David Bryne), doesn’t deploy the necessary wall of sound where it is called for. On “I Will Be”, the strings play pizzicato accents and a rhythm section combines funk guitar, Wurlitzer piano and old school soul drumming to create something that would have sounded terrific in 1975. With the horn section, the background singers and the strings all intersecting on the chorus, it’s just a good piece of songcraft and production. Doolittle doesn’t have to push to hard to make the record sound good—it’s plain well made.
It is interesting to hear this production style used on some vintage material such as Robert Johnson’s classic blues, “Dust My Broom”. It’s just a 12-bar blues, but Mangini does a terrific job of giving it a funk backbeat, some hip hand-percussion, soulful organ licks, and those Motown-style bells, all of which provide the singer a launching pad that is as old as American music but that seems as up-to-date as the music of, say, John Mayer. Doolittle takes every liberty available to her vocally in singing this blues: the digging in on low notes, bending her tones authentically, but somehow staying right in the middle of the arrangement as if she were part of the band rather than a diva launching into the stratosphere. It’s a dirty and wrenching performance that probably would not have gone over well on American Idol but sounds just right here.
It is a mystery, however, why Mangini fades the performance down in the middle of a 12-bar chorus as if he wanted to keep things short for radio play. Sad to say, but Coming Back to You is unlikely to birth a top-ten hit. That’s no fault of Doolittle’s or Mangini’s—it’s just the odds these days, particularly with record containing this level of old-school authenticity.
“The Fundamental Things” is a funky, mid-tempo groove that sets up lean and sharp in the rhythm section, then swells into a rising pre-chorus, a satisfying chorus, and even a harmonically interesting bridge section. Imagine that—a new track based around truly strong song-writing. It’s an idea, isn’t it? “It’s Your Love” has a more retro feeling with a steady 12/8 feel that brings to mind a doo-wop song. You can see Doolittle fronting a girl group from that era comfortably.
The title track sounds more like contemporary pop, with a vocal that comes out of the church, sure, but also meshes easily with the back-up singing. There is nothing synthesized or over-beautiful about the track, however. The band still sounds live, and the instruments still sound analog. But the tune relies less on older licks and lets Doolittle show off her ability to sing with a touch more gloss. Even on this song, however, the bridge makes you imagine that Richard Nixon is president, and not just as Frank Langella in some Ronnie Howard movie.
That said, you do not get the sense that Melinda Doolittle wishes she had been born in a different era. The music on Coming Back to You is comfortably authentic, but it is less mechanized that our 2009 ears are used to. Still, the dance sounds on a tune like “Declaration of Love” could work well in a club these days, even if they would sit better with the folks who rather hear a real piece wood hitting a real drum than some zeroes and ones simulating a beat. There are plenty of us left in the world, and we don’t want to listen exclusively to Aretha Franklin for the rest of our lives.
Melinda Doolittle offers that opportunity. It’s pop music, and the surface sounds great—and maybe that’s enough in pop music. But Coming Back to You feels a little but deeper, and that’s not a bad thing either.