Carl Thomas 

Conquer

No single track on Carl Thomas' new album can quite measure up to the single, an old-fashioned love ballad called "Don't Kiss Me." That song shows Thomas' true talent, not only as a singer but also as a seducer. The combination of a luxuriant tenor and persuasive lyrics (Thomas gives his lover an ultimatum in the first verse) make it one of the most forceful songs on mainstream radio. It's enticing.

That said, the rest of the album lacks real songcraft; the melodies are turgid, the production canned, the words often insipid. It's really held together by Thomas' voice, which is strong enough even to surpass the boringness of contemporary R&B. On "It Ain't Fair" he lends pain and palpable anguish to a song that's ultimately about a casual crush. On "The Night Is Yours" he trills, rolls, and otherwise ornaments lyrics that could have been filched from Olivia Newton John. "Long Distance Love Affair" is the exception — it's bolstered by hooky production to match the plaintive pitch in Thomas' voice, as he pleads with an absent (read: distant) lover. Literal, yes. But it's a relatable scenario, and Thomas is careful not to overdo the sentiment.

So what he really needs is a better production team, and perhaps a ghostwriter. R&B auteur Andre Harris and smooth jazz kingpin Rex Rideout are the powerhouses behind this album, and although they both boast impressive CVs (Dre & Vidal and Ledisi, respectively), their penchant for slow-jam beats and feathery string sections seems like an ill fit for Thomas. What this singer needs is a few church bells and a frivolous, soaring bridge — something to match the conviction in his voice. As he assures in "Don't Kiss Me," it's gotta be all or nothing. (Verve Forecast)

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