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Amerie matures into a true artist

Also reviewed, Ben Folds and the jazzy Diane Schuur
/ Source: The Associated Press

This week Amerie develops into a real artist with her latest, “Touch.” Ben Folds proves that he’s more than a one-hit wonder with “Songs for Silverman.” And the passionate and inventive Diane Schuur will keep you guessing with “Schurr Thing.”

Amerie, “Touch”Amerie first caught our ear in 2002 with the sugary “Why Don’t We Fall In Love,” an uptempo love ditty that had just enough of a groove to keep our attention — but just barely.

Now Amerie has developed into an artist who can certainly keep our ears open and our eyes peeled. She’s dropped the girl-next-door look for a sleek, glamorous image a la that other one-named sensation, Beyonce. But more than enhancing her sex appeal, Amerie has smartly revved up her groove appeal, making her more than just a pretty starlet with a semblance of a voice.

Her sophomore effort, “Touch,” has just the right musical one: at its core are solid rump-shakers that perfectly complement Amerie’s sweet but occasionally thin voice. The album’s first single, the smash “1 Thing,” has an infectious funky hook that almost forces you on the dance floor — and Amerie could have easily been an afterthought on her own song. But it perfectly meshes with Amerie’s layered “ooohs” and soaring vocal climaxes to allow both the beat and her voice to shine.

“Rolling Down My Face” is a great midtempo song with an intoxicating Roy Ayers sample that sets it off perfectly. The album’s title track is another winner. On “Touch,” Amerie smartly takes a cue from today’s other R&B songtresses (Ciara, Nivea, Brooke Valentine) and taps crunk czar Lil’ Jon for a great club track that could be the dance anthem of the summer (in fact, it sounds suspiciously like LAST YEAR’s dance anthem, which Lil Jon also created — Usher’s “Yeah” — right down to the synth hooks).

The entire album, on which Amerie co-wrote several songs and serves as executive producer, is solid, seamless party — until Amerie unwisely decides to slow things down, like on the so-so “Can We Go” with Carl Thomas and the unremarkable “Falling.” But just when we start to lose our interest, she brings us back to the fold with another version of “1 Thing,” a remix with Eve. And we are again reminded why we started listening — and why we’ll keep on doing so.—Nekesa Mumbi Moody

Ben Folds, “Songs for Silverman”

Remember Ben Folds’ hit “Brick” when he was fronting the mathematically challenged trio, Ben Folds Five? Their 1997 album “Whatever and Ever Amen” sounded like fun, bouncy ’90s nostalgia, even then.

“Songs for Silverman” is now Folds’ third solo disc, and while he still enjoys a strong fanbase of diehards, it’s easy to wonder how someone who so consistently churns out pop gems (plus produces offbeat projects like William Shatner’s “Has Been”) could ever be labeled a one-hit wonder.

Why did we ever stop listening? Maybe because Folds (and groups like They Might Be Giants) get pushed under the rug for simply being so predictably solid.

“Silverman” begins with “Bastard,” the album’s best tune. After a typical opening of staccato piano chords, Folds sings in his high, nasal voice, “The whiz man’ll never fit you like the whiz kid did / So why you gotta act like you know when you don’t know?”

On “Jesusland,” Folds’ lulls you with a gentle gallop, almost hiding his dig at religious suburbia: “town to town / broadcast to each house, they drop your name / but no one knows your face.”

The disc’s first single, “Landed,” could be a new “Brick” — a soft, swooning ballad about a lover’s return to earth after a misguided flight away.

Overall, “Silverman” is full of Folds’ pitch-wavering, buoyant ditties, though he seems to have made a natural evolution away from rockers like “The Battle of Who Could Care Less.” Those bursts of stomp are missed, leaving “Silverman” a little too even.

The disc’s most touching tune, however, is “Late,” a dedication to the singer-songwriter Elliot Smith, who died in October 2003. Folds and Smith toured together in 1998, and on “Late,” he sings of regret of not earlier voicing his admiration:

“When desperate static beats the silence up / a quiet truth to calm you down / the songs you wrote / Got me through a lot / Just wanna tell you that.”

It’s a fitting reminder to appreciate the few unique voices we have.—Jake Coyle

Diane Schuur featuring Caribbean Jazz Project, “Schuur Fire”Diane Schuur is a passionate, inventive jazz vocalist who isn’t content to settle for the sure thing — and these qualities come to the fore on this collaboration with vibes-marimba player Dave Samuels’ Caribbean Jazz Project. With a major assist from Brazilian guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, who produced and arranged the CD as well as provided accompaniment on several tracks, Schuur has come up with a different twist here, creating a Latin-tinged album that mostly features tunes not associated with Latin music.

The CJP’s Latin rhythms spice up Schuur’s repertoire of older and newer standards, including “Lover Come Back To Me,” done as an uptempo ballad driven by some fiery percussion; James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”; and Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World” and Stevie Wonder’s “As,” both of which feature Schuur multi-tracking her voice to provide her own background vocals. Schuur pulls out all the stops and showcases her soaring multi-octave vocal range on Cole Porter’s “So In Love,” with hot solos from trumpeter Diego Urcola and Samuels; while showing a softer and more restrained side on the yearning “More Than You Know,” a tune made popular by Frank Sinatra.

Schuur does include several tunes with authentic Latin roots — Sergio Mendes’ bossa nova “Look Around,” Ivan Lins’ wistful “Confession” with new lyrics written for Schuur, and a Mexican ballad, “Yellow Days,” that ends the session on a mellow note.

But what Schuur mostly sets out to do here — and she largely succeeds — is re-imagining non-Latin tunes in sync with her CJP bandmates. Nowhere is that more evident than on “I Can’t Stop Loving You” — a country tune which Ray Charles already put his own stamp on — sung here to a backdrop of vibes, marimba, trumpet and Latin guitar.—Charles J. Gans