With his humiliating boy-band years in N*Sync behind him, there doesn’t appear to be anything Justin Timberlake can’t do. A natural actor and gifted comedian, Timberlake has been flexing his acting muscles on the big and small screens with good results. So it’s ironic that his music career seems to be suffering a bit. First of all, seven years between full-length recordings is a long time to wait, especially if the best you are able to come up with is The 20/20 Experience (RCA). Secondly, much of the disc is reminiscent of the late-career recordings of Michael Jackson, where production took priority over substance (“Don’t Hold the Wall” and “Tunnel Vision” are good examples). It’s not a total loss—“Pusher Love Girl” and “Suit & Tie” are standouts. The Latin-spiced “Let the Groove In” has the most energy, and “Mirrors” gives Timberlake a chance to really sing (without being interrupted by Jay-Z). Mostly The 20/20 Experience has trouble staying focused. Maybe Timberlake should stick with his promising acting career and regular guest-hosting appearances on SNL.
Yet another (British) TV talent show competitor, Olly Murs has yet to achieve Timberlake’s level of success. But all of that could change with his third album Right Place Right Time (SYCO Music/Columbia). On the strength of the hit single “Troublemaker,” featuring Flo Rida, Murs has the chance to expand his audience. Murs’s “cheeky” retro style comes through on “Dance with Me Tonight,” but the prefab “Hey You Beautiful” sounds like a Maroon 5 knockoff—and not in a good way. The title cut is a minor improvement, and “Oh My Goodness” is better still. Murs also knows the value of drama, which he displays on “Dear Darlin’” and especially “Hand on Heart.”
One of the most ambitious and rewarding blue-eyed soul albums of the year, James Blake’s Overgrown (Republic) makes experimentation safe for the masses. With a vocal range reminiscent of Antony Hegarty’s (of Antony and the Johnsons) on “I Am Sold,” Blake employs his subtly plaintive wail to great effect. Like Active Child, Blake utilizes atmospherics to set and maintain a mood. Even when he brings in RZA (of Wu-Tang Clan), as he does on “Take a Fall for Me,” it feels organic and not disruptive (take note, Jay-Z). The overall outcome is one of haunting beauty, particularly on “Life Round Here,” “Retrograde,” “DLM,” and “Our Love Comes Back.”
The UK also has a long history of supplying blue-eyed soulful divas, dating back to Dusty Springfield and Lulu, through Alison Moyet, Kirsty MacColl, and Carmel, and on up to Adele, Duffy, and Amy Winehouse. Now we can add the name Alice Russell to that list. Not a newcomer by any stretch of the imagination, Russell has been plying her trade on record for almost ten years, but has never gotten the stateside attention she deserves. To Dust (Tru Thoughts) may or may not do the trick, but it’s worth hearing in any case. There’s not a misstep on the disc, with standout tunes that include the aptly named “Hard and Strong,” “For a While,” “Heartbreaker,” the dramatic “I Loved You,” and the modern funk of “Let Go” (Breakdown).
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.