Elle Varner

Perfectly Imperfect

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It would be restrictive to compare Elle Varner to Chrisette Michele and Jazmine Sullivan, but the parallels are inescapable. As with her predecessors' debuts, Perfectly Imperfect sounds like the assured work of a singer and songwriter -- one who co-composes and co-produces her material -- who is on her third or fourth album. There are vocal similarities, too. Varner's delivery is magnetizing with a slight rasp, though she's neither as jazz-rooted nor as showy as Chrisette, and she never goes in the red like Jazmine. After a couple spins of Perfectly Imperfect -- principally made with young bucks Andrew "Pop" Wansel and Warren "Oak" Felder, along with some assistance from Varner's father, Jimmy -- her individuality pokes through. There's the playful anguish expressed in "Refill," a booming rattler with some twinkle and jittery fiddle, where Varner likens nerve-wracked flirting to acting tipsy: "Feel like a conversational lush, and I don't know how much is too much." Few songs evoke emotional butterflies as brilliantly as "I Don't Care," a production that swoons and stutters to augment Varner's love-struck bind: "I'm not designed for this/If I could speak in code, I wouldn't be so bold/I can't control my lips, lips, lips." It's something of a paradox that, for all of Varner's creative certitude, an overwhelming majority of her lyrics are self-deprecating. While the romping "Sound Proof Room" has a lot of presence, the album is thick with apprehension, doubt, and distanced longing. There's so much of it that one fights the urge to tell the woman to take figurative and literal looks in the mirror. This doesn't detract from the material; in fact, Varner's feelings are conveyed in such imaginative and clever ways that the second half's strummy pop and folk detours go down smoothly. This is one of 2012's most pleasing and promising debuts. The wait for the follow-up, whatever the length, will be far too long.

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