Two years after Amy Winehouse took the U.S. by storm with the double-platinum, Grammy-winnning smash Back to Black, record labels have been scrambling to repeat that success, especially with Winehouse herself taking a leave of absence to be a general menace to society. Since then, several artists mining a similar sound have scored, most notably fellow Brits Adele and Duffy. Now, coming to you from the land Down Under is Gabriella Cilmi, an Austrailian vocalist whose voice and musical style has surface similarities to Winehouse, but whose songwriting (done mostly by committee) doesn’t have a fraction of the wit or lived-in soulfulness that Back to Black (or even Winehouse’s debut, Frank) possessed.
Lessons to Be Learned, the debut album from the 17-year old Cilmi, was released in 2008 in her home country (where it topped the charts) as well as in the UK. Receiving its U.S. release a year later, the debut is nothing worth writing home about. While some of the songs mine more contemporary waters, many of the songs work the same Motown/Wall of Sound motif as the majority of the soul/jazz vocalists coming out of the U.K., only with less authentic flavor. Cilmi’s nasal voice makes her sound like a cross between Winehouse and American blue-eyed funk pretender Nikka Costa (or even worse, a more exaggerated version of Taylor Dayne or Anastacia) while her lyrics sound as if it was written, well…by a teenager (granted, Cilmi actually isa teenager, but lyrics written by teens generally tend not to be the best, except in rare cases, and this is not one of them).
“Deserts need the sun and the rain / ‘Cause pleasure only comes after pain,” Cilmi sings on the album’s first track, “Got No Place to Go”, and it’s indicative of what you’ll find throughout Lessons to Be Learned. While Amy Winehouse has a sense of danger that makes her sound like the girl you’d be afraid to meet in a dark alley at night (or at least the type of girl you’d want on your side in a fight), and Adele at least has the hopeless-romantic thing about her, Cilmi sounds like their milquetoast little sister, trying to prove she can be as badass as her older siblings. While tracks like “Sweet About Me” and “Sanctuary” overdo the faux ’60s vibe, the stabs at a more-contemporary sound on Lessons don’t work much better. Whether going for a bit of an electro-pop sound on “Save the Lies (Good To Me)” (which strangely reminds of a ZZ Top Eliminator-era track) or trying her hand at a bluesy sound with “Awkward Game”, nothing on this album sticks to the ribs. Not even a trip back to the ’50s for the rock ‘n’ roll rave-up “Terrifying” works. Despite the album’s relatively short 37-minute running time, you’ll find yourself praying Lessons to Be Learned will end quickly.
Although Lessons to Be Learned lacks a stand-out track, it should be labeled boring or bland instead of bad or awful. The closest Cilmi comes to making anything worth sticking around for comes when she closes the album with two pleasant ballads: “Safer” and “Sit in the Blues”. Unfortunately, the songs would be even more pleasant if someone else were singing them. Cilmi’s voice ultimately sounds like a marketing executive’s idea of what a bluesy “soul mama” should sound like.
A brief history of music-industry trends proves that imitation is often the sincerest form of flattery. Duffy came out in Amy Winehouse’s wake and scored a hit by essentially making a cheap facsimile of Amy’s hit album. Gabriella Cilmi is out to prove that in this particular case, lightning can strike a second time. With a grating voice and a completely faceless sound, Cilmi offers nothing on Lessons to Be Learned that you haven’t heard before, and undoubtedly you’ve heard it done better.