Alright, so 21-year-old British chanteuse Leona Lewis is straight out of the mold called Mariah. The cover shot for Lewis’ debut, the pedestrian but pleasant “Spirit,” drips with the bronze, long-locked loveliness that was the imagery for 1990’s “Mariah Carey.” Right down to the multi-octave vocal gymnastics woven through the album’s baker’s dozen of tracks, it’s obvious the architects building up this “X-Factor” champion are aiming to create a neo-diva, a direct descendant of the Mariah Carey-Whitney Houston-Celine Dion trifecta that dominated the charts and airwaves many moons ago.
I was very skeptical when I first heard the buzz surrounding Lewis. I don’t hold the fact that she’s a product of the identi-kit singer factory called reality television against her, as “American Idol” alums Fantasia and Elliott Yamin are favorites of mine. (Yamin’s a Virginia boy too, so that doesn’t hurt.) But when Big O got in on the act and featured her on her show, I rolled my eyes. I’m always amazed at how people will praise anything that gets Oprah’s endorsement, so I was cautious in approaching Lewis. I do like the catchy “Bleeding Love,” so I decided to give her a whirl. If she’s shooting for the lofty heights of classic debut albums like “Whitney Houston” or “Mariah Carey” she has a long way to go. However, if you take the album for the competently sung, well-crafted work it is, it’s not half bad and is quite promising.
From the outset it’s pretty obvious this is a by-the-numbers debut, an album squarely aimed at adults and tweens tuned into the cogs turning in the Top 40. Lewis gets very little opportunity to project real personality and emotion here, which one could argue is to be expected since she’s so young. Nobody knows pop pap better than producers Clive Davis and Simon Cowell, and their stamp is clearly written all over this project. The problem with albums like this is that producers and tunesmiths rarely create backdrops that allow for a singer’s youth and the selected material to complement each other. Syrupy tunes like “Here I Am,” “I Will Be” and “Whatever it Takes” are nice but show signs of a belter holding back, much like some of the early Houston recordings that left critics screaming that she was capable of much more. Detractors slam the upstart as faceless, but when she’s given the right song, she can be quite sensual and infectious. “Forgive Me,” “Better in Time” and “Angel” could easily reside beside offerings by mainstays like Alicia Keys or Maroon 5 on most mainstream stations. In those spritely workouts we get a bit of exuberance missing from the more adult-oriented fare singers riding in Lewis’ lane often get saddled with.
I’m not that hot on cover versions, but I have to admit the girl did a pretty damn good job with Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” The song is to Lewis what “Summertime” and “Moody’s Mood for Love” were to Fantasia and Yamin – in that moment, you get a real sense of what everybody’s raving about. Of course her interpretation doesn’t compare to the original, but she holds her own and the song’s quiet, emotive tone emerges intact. Without question, it’s a defining moment for the singer.
That said, “Spirit” may not take the grand prize but it’s worth an honorable mention, a charming start for a young woman who is indeed home to a beautiful, vibrant voice. It’s not the most challenging amalgam of sound you’ll ever hear, or for that matter the most distinct, but it’s a portrait teeming with infinite possibilities. As her musical vision begins to take shape and she taps into her true voice, I think Lewis could find herself leading a pack of divas for the upcoming generation.
So I’d say don’t write her off too quickly. This chick just might be one to watch.