- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Jordin Sparks
Jive Records

Youth appeal is probably the last problem you’d expect to afflict a 19-year-old singer with national name recognition and a certified platinum album under her belt. But the record executives steering the career of Jordin Sparks, the undeniably gifted and immensely likeable winner of the sixth season of “American Idol,” are faced with the challenge of transforming her appeal from the older-skewing television audience to fresh-faced teeny-boppers.

Miss Sparks won “American Idol” on the strength of memorable performances of songs made famous by Bon Jovi, Gloria Estefan, Tracy Chapman, Donna Summer, Pat Benatar and other artists better known to baby boomer and Gen-X audiences than millennial musical tastemakers. Her eponymous first album, aside from a duet with Chris Brown, was rather more Lite FM than Top 40. Her sophomore album addresses these demographic shortcomings, with assists from A-list producers like T-Pain, Harvey Mason Jr. and Ryan Tedd. The result is a busy, almost fussy album that doesn’t do enough to showcase Miss Sparks’ talent and personality.

The pulsing bass and staccato synth blasts of “S.O.S. (Let the Music Play)” makes it the likeliest club hit of the record. It’s something of a throwback, taking its rhythmic groove and chorus from the 1983 track “Let the Music Play” by one-hit wonder Shannon. While it suffers from comparison with the original, Miss Sparks carries it off by affecting a grizzled disco queen voice that suits the vibe perfectly.

The opening track, “Walking on Snow,” mixes heavy beats with a spine of downbeat guitar. Miss Sparks divides her voice among several tracks, with breathy high notes interspersed with a more assertive, middle-range vocal line.

Miss Sparks seems a little out of her depth on the title track, “Battlefield.” Sung from the point of view of a knowing veteran of love, it comes across as an “American Idol” performance - more impersonation than interpretation.

The overwrought “Watch You Go,” co-written by T-Pain, digs into a bag of tricks that don’t do Miss Sparks justice, but its story of an on-again, off-again romance feels more age appropriate. The occasional use of vocoder effects here and elsewhere isn’t done to hide uneven vocal performances - Miss Sparks combines a great natural voice with years of assiduous training. It’s just a sonic accent, but it comes off as cynical and saccharine.

My favorite track here is probably the silliest. “Emergency (911)” is high teen drama, about a girl stuck at home on a Friday night because her boyfriend won’t call. It kicks off with the lyric, “You know my ring tone/ Why don’t you answer the phone.” A swell of strings ramps up the intensity, and the song even pauses for a second to mix in the beeping of phone buttons.

Miss Sparks shares writing credit on “Emergency (911)” and three others - all stuck at the end of the album. The bulk of the album leaves the listener wondering about the person behind the voice. Her own songs, while not as pumped up with bass and heavy beats, feel more authentic, and the voice of the wholesome, unassuming young woman who wowed viewers of “American Idol” comes across loud and clear.

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