Hear Me Out - Katharine McPhee, Mary J. Blige, Matt Morris

Katherine McPhee, Unbroken
Now a blonde, you wouldn’t recognize the former Idolfrontrunner on the cover of her second album. That’s probably the point. After an awful, R&B-leaned 2007 debut bombed and struggled to artistically define the singer-turned-actress (causing her then-label RCA Records to drop her), the former broad’s going the Mandy Moore route – right down adult-contemporary road. Songs like the first couple pop confections – mid-tempos “It’s Not Right” and “Had It All,” the irresistible first single – fit McPhee better than the shoes she ridiculously sang about on her predecessor, partly because the focus wisely shifts to her fine, cloudless voice. It’s an alluring instrument that works marvelously on “Say Goodbye,” a piano-led lament vulnerably conveyed in a haunting cadence. Unfortunately, it’s often also stylistically vanilla – and a heap of bland ballads rounding out the album aren’t particularly wooing. But at least she’s moving her Manolos in the right direction.
Grade: B-
Mary J. Blige,
Stronger with Each Tear
If ever an artist could sell a cliché, it’d be Mary J. Blige. So much raw conviction is served alongside her inimitable powerhouse voice that even self-empowerment platitudes, like those on the canned MJB upper-anthem “Each Tear” off her ninth studio album, go down easier than they should. But even a bona fide soul queen like Blige can’t redeem something as abominable as “Kitchen,” cooking up atrocious rhymes and silly appliance metaphors like a parody. Meat’s missing in the hallow shells of “I Love U (Yes I Du)” and “I Feel Good,” and a few cookie-cutter club songs – produced by trendy hip-hop hot shots – dilute Blige’s trademark stamp, but still do their job. She gets into her groove on “I Am” with its classic-ballad throwback vibe. But it’s the prized closing paean, “I Can See in Color” – a sparse, bluesy song of joy, redemption and self-love – that makes bold boasts like “I’m the best” more believable.
Grade: C+
Matt Morris, When Everything Breaks Open
Major guts make good on the adventurous debut of the out Colorado native – formerly a Mouseketeer, now a songwriter for the stars. One being Justin Timberlake, who signed Morris to his Tennman label (and serves as co-producer of his first CD) – a move that further mirrors the pop force’s strong musical sense. Morris has a gorgeous, tenor-to-falsetto fluidity to his malleable voice, and on “Let It Go” it flowers into Rufus Wainwright-like wonder. But he’s also unafraid of making bold moves: His style-hopping work – atmospheric rock (“Just Before the Morning”), rhythmic Jason Mraz-styled soul (“Love”) and baiting pop (radio-ready “Live Forever”) – is full of instrumental nuances. The classic underbelly of “The Un-American,” a circusy song with a biting social commentary, epitomizes that. It only ruins him when it deprecates his voice, buzzing with percussion like “You Do It For Me” does. Otherwise, it’s worth breaking open.
Grade: B
Also Out
Glee: The Music, Vol. 2
TV’s indelible wrecking-ball is like a game: How gay can it get? Season one’s second half of songs includes “True Colors.” And Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary.” And an acoustic molding of Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach.” Several popular musical faves, like “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” also ’mo it up, but mind-blowing mash-ups are still missing. At least with moving ballads like “Imagine,” it’s better than the first installment. Imagine that.
Kylie Minogue, Live in New York
If a disco ball could talk, it would sound like this – a sprawling 25-track, digital-only concert release that’s ceaselessly charged with high-energy shimmer. Highlights: a jazzy “Locomotion,” a shook-up “Speakerphone” and “Everything Taboo Medley.” All the eye-popping aesthetics that were part of the charming Aussie’s first U.S. tour are left to the imagination. The music’s generally so good, it doesn’t even matter.
Allison Iraheta, Just Like You
With pipes that belie her 17 years – and sound ripped from Pink’s DNA – the fourth-place Idol finisher’s suitable first album is full of fizzy, fun delights. “Friday I'll Be Over U” is retro grunge-pop at its best. But raw-sounding slowies like “Scars” and “Trouble Is,” especially mimicking her vocal doppelganger, spotlight her rough-and-gruff growl. Lots of promise is here, but now she’s gotta find her own voice.
Reach Chris Azzopardi at chris@pridesource.com.

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