Friday, November 20, 2009
Album Review: Leona Lewis - Echo (4.5/5)
How do you follow-up an insanely successful first album, that proved an X Factor winner can indeed conqure the pop music scene, and do it well? avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump, well this is how: Capitalizing on what made the first album so good and so successful and enhancing them, doing a bit of growing up without coming across too big for your trousers which is what Leona Lewis' second album, Echo, manges to capture effectively. It's still the same mix of pop and soft rock, ballads, mid-tempo and uptemo's like the first album but now embracing influences from dance-pop.
If you want to make a comparison, Echo, could have emulated the same sound Kelly Clarkson's Breakaway went for, a more apparent blend of rock and pop, as Lewis is now in the same position Clarkson was five years ago--her first album, Thankful, was a solid success, spawned three hits ("A Moment Like This," "Miss Independent" and "Low") but the question remained as how Clarkson would fair with her second album--whether she would falter or solidify her name as serious pop singer and not just another corporation puppet driven by Simon Cowell--then Breakway was born, one of the best pop albums of the decade, landing Clarkson 5 top 20 hits in a row and selling 13 million copies worldwide.
Leona's career so far follows the same sort of story. Her first album, Spirit, was a success... a monster of a hit, becoming the UK's second biggest selling album of 2007, also becoming the 27th biggest selling album in UK history and selling a staggering total of 3 million copies in the UK as well as an additional 4 million worldwide. Her victory on the X Factor followed both Shanye Ward and Steve Brookstein--who both, particularly Shayne, had put out albums following their success on the X Factor which had amounted to fair success in the UK, but failed to branch out successfully to notable countries outside the United Kingdom and Ireland, which brings us to Spirit's most biggest achievement as it made Leona the first British solo-act to top the US Billboard 200, let-alone being the first X Factor winner to achieve success overseas. Not too shabby for a first album, don't you think?
Another comparison you could make is with Mariah Carey, a woman Leona is closely associated with to the public. Spirit, successfully emulated the same sort of structure as Mariah's first album, released back in 1990, both a blend of upbeat pop (Mariah's "Someday" and Leona's "Forgive Me") balladry (Mariah's "Vision of Love" and Leona's "Bleeding Love") and R&B influences (Mariah's "All in Your Mind" and Leona's "Yesterday"). So if, Spirit was Leona's Mariah Carey, then Echo should be Leona's Emotions, right? Right! Mariah's second album used the same If-it's-not-broken-don't-fix-it mind-frame Echo is using--although I think it's far better than Emotions as its songs aren't just bland retreads of the ones on the last album.
Unlike Emotions, Echo showcases a cohesive, winning blend of pop, R&B and soft rock whilst remaining solid. Surprisingly there's no filler, which is normally the problem that pulls down even today's best pop albums, although there's at least two tracks that haven't completely won me over. Opening track and lead single "Happy" successfully recalls "Bleeding Love" in its likable haunting balladry, probably because their both produced by Ryan Tedder, who appears again on the album towards the end. More parallels s to "Bleeding Love" It's brilliant mid-section in which the orchestration become more quiet after she sympathetically sings ("don't say victim, don't say anything") and the chorus approaches with just the piano as in "Bleeding Love" before she belt ("I'll be wearing these scars for everyone to see") the bass becomes more apparent, soon quieting for the orchestrated chorus plays out.
After "Happy" the next four tracks are pretty solid. First up is the Max Martin-penned "I Got You," starting out with strings intact and Lewis' subtle vocal on top--before embracing a bigger sound, mostly with hard-hitting drums, as the fantastic chorus approaches and her vocals become stronger and forceful without straining, possibly among the few songs that sum-up the albums title well. Following is "Can't Breathe," which begins with a brief rapid collision of bass before emerging as a bit of a slow jam, with orchestration and big bass sounds intact. It's another winner, however I do think the hook is a tad inaudible--It sounds like she's saying ("I don't wanna... Gaga") over and over again or maybe it's just me. However her soaring high-pitched vocals on the chorus are just sensational.
"Brave" opens with subtle progressive orchestration as it ascends into an interesting foreign sound ending after the lyric ("I wish I was that brave") before things pick up magnificently with guitars, drums and kinetic handclaps aligned together to create that big sound that "Can't Breathe" also goes for. The song builds up to a breathtaking climax, finding Lewis effectively using her upper vocal range, almost reminiscent to the kind of upper register tricks Mariah does at the end of almost every ballad she does, at this moment I'm thinking of "Bye Bye."
Instantly showing some of the differences between Echo and Spirit is the techno-influenced, second single "Outta My Head," pounding with '80s styled synth and Gameboy-like sounds, backed with a booming hook and chorus--possibly the most exciting Leona has been since maybe "Forgive Me," her last upbeat single.
Towards the middle, the album doesn't remain as consistent as it does with its first five tracks. Dramatic bass and piano driven ballad "My Hands" is a lovely song, not a highlight for me personally though. The opening guitar strings in "Love Letter" that briefly recall same kind of opening of Kelly Clarkson's "My Life Would Suck Without You." It's a lovely number, but it would be nice if built up to a big dramatic climax like some of the previous tracks do, as after the bridge it doesn't go anywhere, but serious piano laced ballad "Broken" makes up for it as it successfully a heart-stirring dramatic climax, in which Lewis' eludes probably her most magnificent vocal performance ever. Fresh "Naked" goes for the classic teen-orientated pop/rock sound. It's pretty good.
Towards the end of the album, there's a pretty near remake of Oasis' "Stop Crying Your Heart Out." Another climax-friendly ballad that works perfectly. Following is Justin Timberlake-penned, piano and string backed ballad "Don't Let Me Down," which hits all the right notes in-terms of a decent ballad, not enough right ones to emulate an instant winner, however I do like how the orchestration plays out the song at the end. "Alive" is another piano, string and drum affair--It goes for a climatic ending. Closing the album is "Lost Then Found" which features OneRepublic, which many Bloggers have noted it's more OneRepublic than Leona and I agree, but it is a pretty nice dramatic piano, bass and drum fueled ballad. A nice way to conclude the album.
If your comparison crazy--Echo could have been either been Leona's Breakway or her Emotion's like I mentioned before. If it's her Breakaway and her career turns out like Kelly Clarkson's, then this album should receiver critical acclaim and sell a lot and her next album will be a complete shift in music, end up as a flop and result in collisions with the record label, however if this is her Emotion's and her career trails Mariah Carey's then this album will be a moderate success and be over fairly quickly, however then her next album should be an earth shattering hit--her Music Box.
Best: Happy, I Got You, Outta My Head, Brave, Broken, Stop Crying Your Hear Out, Naked