Trying To Get To You

Monday, February 16, 2009

Melinda Doolittle's Soulless Soul

I don’t watch American Idol, but unsurprisingly, the times I’ve watched it, I’ve loathed it. Listening to the singers, even the ones with good technical voices, butcher some great songs – it’s just excruciating. Nor can I get into it on a post-modern “it’s so bad, it’s good” level. I get no joy laughing at the self-deluded contestants – I just end up feeling icky and uncomfortable. Even the amongst the singers who possess technically strong voices, I find no emotion conveyed in their singing except for perhaps their own banal ambition to win.

I write this because I’ve spent the past week or so listening to Melinda Doolittle’s new album, Coming Back To You. Doolittle was a controversial runner up on American Idol a couple of seasons ago. Simon Cowell thought the result was unfair and that Doolittle should have won instead of Jordin Sparks. I can’t say that she deserved to win, as I didn’t watch the show. But if Coming Back To You is any indication, Doolittle will soon be consigned to the dustbin where most Idol performers languish, soon to be forgotten, except perhaps as the answer to a trivia question, or a contestant on a future reality TV show.

Doolittle has a strong voice, but it signifies nothing except that she’s got a gift that she doesn’t really know how to use. Her singing exists solely to convey itself, rather than the emotional truths that a great vocalist communicates. Her voice swoops, dives and competently executes the classic gospel influenced inflections, but it has the all the warmth and inspiration of a deodorant commercial. The songs – all covers – float by harmlessly and pointlessly. And on the two Robert Johnson covers, “Dust My Broom” and “Walkin’ Blues,” Doolittle drains the songs of their sexuality and dread – their authentic humanity – making them fit for perhaps a turn singing them to Oscar the Grouch when she makes a promo appearance on Sesame Street.

Melinda Doolittle may be a soul singer in the context of a genre, but in reality, she is anything but a soul singer. Safe, banal and harmless are all adjectives that disappear when truly soulful music is present.

8 comments:

Matthew Moran said...

My challenge with Idol is less about the lack of depth or feeling as they butcher one classic after another - it is something more insidious in my opinion...

It is the fact that those people who I most admire - whose music I most enjoy - couldn't possibly ever win that contest.

Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristopherson, Johnny Cash, The Who, Zeppelin, Steve Earle, Shawn Mullins, Bruce Springsteen, etc., etc.

In fact, pick your favorite artist and definitely songwriter - virtually any genre.. they wouldn't clear the first round.

Maybe it's my bias but vocal talent not-withstanding, I need something more from my "idols".

Caliban said...

This review is a bit unfair to Melinda Doolittle's album. I am aware that no two people can experience music in the exact same way because music is subjective, but the sweeping generalization of Doolittle's album and perfomance as soulless invite doubt on the reviewer's valid claims as a legit evaluator of music. For one, I thought Doolittle's covers of Robert Johnson's songs were funky and contemporary yet have the gravitas that inform the performances of artists who covered the songs: from Robert Johnson to Elmore James to Cassandra Wilson. Maybe Melinda Doolittle's album will indeed be swept under the dustbin of history but it is not for lack of talent and a nuanced understanding of melody and text -- things this 'review' unfortunately are in need of.

Ben Lazar said...

@Caliban,

Your response is well written until you use the word "gravitas" in the context of Melinda Doolittle. "Gravitas" and Melinda Doolittle are two entities that do not belong in the same sentence. I listened to Miss Doolittle with no bias. In fact, it came recommended from a friend. But unfortunately, listen after listen has revealed a slick and somewhat vapid affair.

GriotLori said...

Soul Man, meet Soul Sista. ;-)

So CBTY didn't make you want to shake your boom-boom around the room-room, huh? Well, you are in the minority. CBTY is music for grown-folks and in a vastly higher league than most post-Idol debut CDs. The most impressive aspect of both Melinda's time on Idol and her debut CD is Melinda's command of multiple genres and her ability to make any song her own. "Doolittle has a strong voice, but it signifies nothing except that she’s got a gift that she doesn’t really know how to use." Careful, you almost got the point: Melinda's gift is that she knows exactly how to use her voice (and she sings these songs more authentically than others who shall remain nameless as they enjoy commercial success for their deception). CBTY reinforces the foundation Melinda established on Idol as a vocalist extraordinaire who is ready to take the lead spot. I applaud her decision to pay homage to the greats in her first offering because that shows respect for her art and the legends who paved the way with their excellent examples. Let lesser singers dissolve into disposal-pop hedonism, Miss Doolittle is here to stay.

As for the selection of songs, where is it written that the debut CD or any CD after must contain original songs? Unless you are a music freak-of-nature or a Google-addict the song's origins are secondary, at best, to the performance; and let's remember that we are talking about music and not a term paper or a clinical study. Classic/Retro Soul music lovers/buyers only want to know three things: "Can I get my groove on?" "Can I crank it up at house parties like back in the day?" and lastly, "Where's she gonna be so we can see her live?" ;-)

Sorry, Soul Man, you missed the groove-line on this one. Your funk-meter sounds like it was frozen and your boogie-shoes must've been too tight to hit the dance floor. But, there is hope for you, my groove-challenged brotha. I recommend you take 2 Have mercies! and play CBTY again straight through (hopefully with a dance partner at the ready - the missing ingredient to previous listenings). No computer speakers, no head/earphones either. Turn down the lights and crank up the volume until the walls shake and pop out a few light bulbs when the horns kick in! Work up a sincere sweat, why dontcha. You'll get your soul back, I guarantee it! ;-)

Ben Lazar said...

Soul Sista, I don't agree with much of what you wrote, but I sure like the way you wrote it. Thanks for your comment. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Love the CD, don't get why you're so over-analytical about whether Melinda has soul or not. Relax, enjoy, don't take yourself so seriously...It's good music!!

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Louise7 said...

MELINDA DOOLITTLE IN HER FIRST-EVER NIGHTCLUB ENGAGEMENT

NOVEMBER 17 – 21, NEW YORK CITY

FEINSTEIN'S AT LOEWS REGENCY, the nightclub proclaimed "Best of New York" by New York Magazine, will debut MELINDA DOOLITTLE in her first-ever nightclub engagement from November 17 – 21. The “American Idol” finalist will perform an intimate evening of jazz standards, pop hits and Broadway classics, in addition to selections from her CD, Coming Back To You. All shows are at the Regency Hotel (540 Park Avenue at 61st Street). For ticket reservations and club information, please call (212) 339-4095 or visit feinsteinsatloewsregency.com and TicketWeb.com.

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