- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 24, 2009

LISTENING STATION

Susan Boyle
I Dreamed A Dream
Columbia Records

By now, Susan Boyle, the Scottish spinster and unlikely torch singer, needs no introduction. The stout, bedraggled 48-year-old shocked the studio audience of “Britain’s Got Talent” with her angelic rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Video clips of her appearance went on to clock scores of millions of views on YouTube. Although she ultimately came in second on “BGT,” interest in Miss Boyle’s career was sufficient not just to land her a major-label record deal but to generate record pre-orders of her debut album on Amazon.com.

Miss Boyle’s is the rare music career to be launched almost exclusively in a visual medium. Audiences swooned at the contrast between the frumpy, oddly saucy older woman who presented herself to the “BGT” judges and her bold and precise singing voice. There is the coy, knowing smile Miss Boyle flashed before she started singing, seemingly aware of the surprise in store for the audience. There is the lingering image of notoriously critical “BGT” judge Simon Cowell resting his head in his hands, his face a mask of beatific appreciation.

These visuals fed into the cruel misapprehension that fueled Miss Boyle’s meteoric rise — that overweight, conventionally unattractive people somehow do not possess the kind of soulful inner beauty that finds expression in art. Ironically, shows like “BGT” and “American Idol” are the chief culprits in propagating this fallacy, with their slick production values and their emphasis on young, attractive contestants.

The question raised by Miss Boyle’s debut is, does her voice hold up as a musical experience, separate and apart from her remarkable biography?

The answer is mixed.

Miss Boyle has a singing style similar to that of her idol, Elaine Page, star of the London stage. She typically kicks off a song in a beguiling whisper, gathering strength, drawing out notes and singing a bit behind the music before building to a gale-force crescendo.

She applies this basic but effective formula to the 12 songs on “I Dreamed a Dream.” She mixes familiar pop and rock hits with musical theater favorites and church music. The choice of songs reflects an emphasis on unlikely triumph, as in “Daydream Believer,” made famous by the Monkees, and Madonna’s “You’ll See.” Her church singing is modest and deferential on “How Great Thou Art” and “Amazing Grace,” but the tracks suffer from an excess of production — especially the booming, sustained organ and the backing choir.

Miss Boyle is at her best on Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain,” which shows off her range as well as anything on the album, while delivering a more down-home church feeling than her hymns. Her cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” shows the limits of Miss Boyle’s talents. Her warbling West End style steers clear of all the song’s grit and turns it into a contest showpiece.

Miss Boyle’s fans will find a lot to like here — although perhaps with less of the drama that attended her television appearances. The musical arrangements are, lamentably, as uninteresting as the karaoke tracks that accompanied her on “BGT” but are well-suited enough to the album.

Minus the sensational story, Miss Boyle is a better-than-average professional singer in the musical theater idiom getting a late start on her career. However, as the album’s title suggests, Miss Boyle is selling dreams, not just a few songs.

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