Donnie Williams barely missed his chance at stardom when he was ejected from American Idol five years ago. At the time, the Livermore-raised R&B vocalist had everything going for him, from the preppy look to the pliant tenor voice. But he didn't use the tools at his disposal. Now he's reemerged with Just Like Magic, a new album whose unintentionally kitschy title accords with Williams' old-fashioned, buttery image. His sound imports gospel elements into a song structure that's very much geared toward KBLX radio play. Williams' voice, however, is simply wonderful.
Just Like Magic kicks off with a melancholy ballad about coming up in the struggle, called "Running." Williams sings hard here, recalling Chicago vocalist Donnell Jones in texture and timbre. His emotional freight and layered background vocals give shape to what would otherwise be a standard-issue tune (the chord changes are borrowed from India.Arie's Stevie Wonder tribute, "Wonderful"). From there, the album gets a little spotty, as the quality of Williams' singing eclipses the originality of his music. He has some talented people backing him up in the studio (keyboardists Kev Choice and Sundra Manning; Brian Collier and Errol Cooney on guitar; fellow Idol LaToya London, who gets a track of her own), and listeners might wish he'd enlisted their help on the production end. But he's also got some gems: the upbeat pop number "Invisible Man"; the gospel song "Higher Power"; and "Miracles," a chaste duet with his equally talented sister Terrell.
Williams' voice sounds very well developed, making Just Like Magic a promising debut. If he reassigns some of the nuts-and-bolts work, he'll be straight. (Chump Change)
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