It would be very easy to lump New York singer-songwriter Toby Lightman among the many other female singer-songwriters floating around. From her looks to her rootsy guitar sound, she quite often recalls “Tuesday Night Music Club”-era Sheryl Crow. However, Lightman also is a serious student of soul music. And while her sound isn’t yet as accomplished as Crow or Alicia Keys, she generally does a good job of meshing the elements together and making it sound natural.
Her debut album, ‘04’s Little Things, had much going for it, with the peppy first single “Devils & Angels” and plenty of VH-1 exposure. However, despite the press and TV attention, the album stiffed. Even a somewhat odd cover of Mary J Blige’s “Real Love”, stripped onto the album when it was reissued later in ‘04, didn’t help matters much.
Bird on a Wire, Lightman’s sophomore effort, doesn’t deviate much from the formula of her debut. Most of the songs sound tailor-made for adult alternative radio. They have a mature, yet still pop-friendly sound. Again, some of the songs have a pronounced R&B element. The album is impeccably produced thanks to the talents of some big-name producers; Bill Bottrell, who is best known for producing Crow’s debut album (as well as working with Michael Jackson and others) is on board here, as is Patrick Leonard, who has worked with divas ranging from Jody Watley to Madonna. The album, at least superficially, sounds great.
However, a closer listen reveals an album with not too many memorable songs. Lightman’s voice is expressive but is also somewhat anonymous. And very few of the songs here reveal her to be a songwriter of any great depth. While you won’t get up to change the CD, Bird on a Wire is one of those albums that’s good on the surface, but seems to float by without the listener really retaining anything from it.
Toby fares best on the handful of songs that reveal a more soulful influence. “My Sweet Song” crosses the flavor of Aretha’s ‘60’s hits with a bit of a doo-wop influence, and the result is a solid, striking song. It’s quite reminiscent of something Shelby Lynne would do. Meanwhile, “Slippin’” is a summery, relaxed track with a great hook. Urban adult radio would be all over this track. When the production is a bit more stripped down (this is all relative, of course), Lightman soars as well. “Weight of the World” has an airy, mellow vibe that makes the song a hypnotic listen. The credits list S. Matthewman as a songwriter, and if he is indeed the Sade member who has given us Sweetback and Maxwell, I would say that he‘s an ideal collaborator for Lightman. She‘d be wise to use him often in the future. “One Sure Thing” is a track that would’ve been just dandy as a simple piano ballad. Thankfully, they stop just short of bringing in everything but the kitchen sink, production-wise. Tasteful organ plays in the background for most of this, joining with simple acoustic guitar, piano, and drums—until the multi-tracked backgrounds come in, the song swells, and it almost derails.
But, for every interesting track on here, there are two that just don’t do anything for me. While Bottrell brought most of the original Crow “Tuesday Night” bunch along with him for this album, Leonard’s tracks (which also feature heavy contributions from former Prince side woman Wendy Melvoin) are the ones that sound most like Crow castoffs. These tracks (“Round & Round” being one of them), sound so much like the sloppy sound (albeit in a very produced way) that is so much like Sheryl’s early work you almost feel obligated to look at the liner notes and make sure she doesn’t have writing credits here.
Much like on Toby’s first album, so many of these tracks simply just run together. While her voice is solid and her songwriting is decent, there’s not much to lift the album above a simply average rating. In the future, Toby might be wise to forgo the singer/songwriter-by-numbers style that she uses on many of the tracks in this album and go for a less produced, more soulful vibe, instead.