Melinda Doolittle 

Coming Back to You

I'm admittedly biased against American Idol, a show whose approach consistently leans toward ratings over musicianship. Voting often rewards mediocrity over merit, resulting in the premature dismissal of worthy talents like Melinda Doolittle. Voters jobbed Doolittle by relegating her to third place behind the infinitely less talented Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis. (Apparently, a winning personality and unimpressive vocal range are reasons enough for the likes of Michael McDonald, Kirk Franklin, and Aaron Neville to have Doolittle sing backup for them in her pre-American Idol days.)

For her debut, Doolittle wisely goes with her strengths instead of trying to curry favor by going down the hip-hop or Top-40 path. From the CD cover photo that replicates an old Bob Dylan album cover to the unorthodox decision to include a pair of Robert Johnson covers in the mix, it's clear that Doolittle is not your little sister's Idol finalist. She gives "Declaration of Love" the kind of LaBelle-like punch Celine Dion was incapable of serving up on the original. On "Wonder Why," she applies the kind of thoughtful reading that's akin to what Sarah Vaughan first went with on the Sammy Cahn classic. Covers of Johnson's Delta blues standards "Dust My Broom" and "Walkin' Blues" are wrapped in a funky framework that brings to mind vintage Tina Turner.

Will Doolittle end up climbing to Jennifer Hudson-like heights or end up in the cutout bin because her stylings skew too "old," not unlike former winner Taylor Hicks? Given the lowest-common-denominator tastes of Idol's diehard viewership, I can only hope the Missouri native avoids Hicks' fate, considering the enormous talents she possesses. (Hi Fi Recordings)

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