A common thread in reviews of Emily Wells' work is praise for her innovative approach in fusing classical and hip-hop, but on the basis of her album Mama, Wells' music in 2012 doesn't have much at all to do with classical beyond incorporating violin and cello into her one-woman band arrangements (and there's a long history of strings in pop music), and the hip-hop elements aren't about the formal structures of the genre but rather her fondness for loops, drum machines, and an affected vocal style that combines some of the more theatrical aspects of a number of R&B divas. Ultimately, Mama is an exercise in precocious indie pop with a lo-fi mind set and as much country and folk floating through the melodies as R&B or art music (especially on songs like "Johnny Cash's Mama's House" and "Let Your Guard Down"). As a producer, Wells knows how to conjure a powerful and evocative sound from an admirably odd variety of elements; Mama is full of atmospheric soundscapes constructed from old synths, toys, random sounds, and a shifting array of instruments, and there's a certain rickety quality to the tracks that serves them well, making them sound organic and human despite their clearly electronic origin. As a songwriter, Wells runs hot and cold; some of these numbers seem to be not so much songs as excuses for Wells to show off her studio skills, and for all the love and human emotions she tries to evoke in her lyrics, there isn't much that bears the ring of truth, through she has a knack for finding the heart-tugging catch in a melodic phrase. And as a singer, Wells is an acquired taste; her voice, which sounds like some unlikely three-way cross between Kate Bush, Macy Gray, and Polly Jean Harvey, isn't always the most sturdy instrument, and she struggles so hard to sound either strong or vulnerable on these tunes that neither quite takes, though she does manage to sound surprisingly sexy on "Mama's Gonna Give You Love." A few listens to Mama confirms that Wells knows how to make a compelling record, but primarily as a producer and arranger; as an artist, she could use a mentor to focus her talents, though one wonders if they could do so effectively without compromising what's best about this music.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming