Two years ago, no one what a Leona Lewis was in the United States. Flash forward and she holds the record as the first British solo female to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200; plus her single “Bleeding Love” is one of the most played songs of the decade.
“Echo” follows on the same continuum started by her predecessor, the multi-platinum “Spirit.” Lewis is flexing her songwriting muscle, co-writing nine of the 13 songs here, but she wisely surrounds herself with friends old and new. “Bleeding Love” co-writer, OneRepublic”s Ryan Tedder (whom we interviewed last week and will post that story soon) returns to co-write and produce a number of songs, including first single, the mid-tempo weeper “Happy,” which is a bit of an odd blend between Sinead O”Connor”s “Nothing Compares 2 U” and Eric Carmen”s “All By Myself.”
New to Lewis”s sphere is Justin Timberlake, who co-wrote “Don”t Let Me Down,” and Bon Jovi/Sheryl Crow/Michelle Branch producer/collaborator John Shanks. Swedish master Max Martin and rocker Mike Elizondo-who is on every record these days from Carrie Underwood to Kris Allen-both make strong contributions as well. Despite the overwhelming number of cooks in the kitchen, to Lewis”s credit the album doesn”t sound like it was put together Frankenstein style.
Lewis”s multi-octave range draws the obvious comparisons to her musical idols, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, but she also has much in common with ’90s singer Sophie B. Hawkins (or even, as times, the Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan). Like Hawkins, her voice is supple, gorgeous and vulnerable. Plus, on much of the production here, Lewis”s vocals are so enhanced with echo (making the album appropriately named) and other effects, it”s as if the producers bathed her voice is soft, flattering, gauzy light to deliver to you on a feathery, down pillow.
Lewis is not a belter, she”s more of a nuanced singer, and most of the songs here reflect that. A notable exception is the up-tempo “Love Letter,” which sounds like it may have been better suited for a powerhouse like Kelly Clarkson, although Lewis redeems herself in the catchy choruses and her nearly unrivaled ability to coo.
She”s also comfortable when she veers into dance territory on the delectable “Outta My Head,” a tune that would have fit in perfectly on a Donna Summer or Kylie Minogue set. “Echo”s” most interesting track is the mid-tempo “Brave,” a slow builder enhanced by tympanis, destined to be a centerpiece of her live show.
While Lewis never strays beyond pop convention on her material on “Echo,” she and her plethora of producers throw in interesting fillips here and there keep the listener”s interest piqued, whether it”s the simple, spare beauty of the beginning of “My Hands,” or the intriguing synthetic drum and bass patterns on “Don”t Let Me Down.” Plus, although only 24, Lewis already shows commanding control over her voice in terms of when to whisper and when to shout (although she does venture into “calling all dogs” territory on “Can”t Breathe,” when she soars in to the stratosphere one too many times.)
Much of the album, such as on “Fly Here Now,” boasts big production with an emphasis on the drums that recalls the ’80s. Think Phil Collins” “In the Air Tonight”: Think big drums, atmospherics, and lots of air. Understatement is not in Lewis”s arsenal, but when voices come as big as this one, that may be expecting too much.
Don”t miss the last track, “Lost and Found,” which features OneRepublic and rolls over to hidden track, “Stone Hearts and Hand Grenades.”