It's hard to say that anyone who became a star, however briefly, when he was a teenage heartthrob on the number one television show in America, then received a chance to record his own album, and then starred in a major motion picture bearing his own name in the title got a raw deal, but it sure is easy to feel a little sorry for Justin Guarini. In 2002, he was all the rage, the runaway star of the first season of American Idol. Kelly Clarkson may have won the competition -- she was the better singer, after all -- but as the show was airing, Justin had all the adulation, not just from the teenyboppers in the audience but from the online community. When the show concluded, it seemed like both Justin and Kelly had it made. And then came the rush-released movie From Justin to Kelly, a cheap, silly musical that dinged Kelly's reputation while completely derailing Justin's career. The film arrived in theaters a mere ten days after his eponymous debut album hit the stores, and the record was buried in an avalanche of bad press for the film. Justin Guarini may have peaked at 20 on the Billboard charts, but no single charted and soon the singer turned the butt of jokes, even on American Idol itself.
Justin surely deserved some of the ridicule: he was an incorrigible ham, often recalling a lounge singer, and his dreads were rightly mimicked as Sideshow Bob hair, giving him a clownish appearance (and, of course, his name sounds kind of funny). Be that as it may, Guarini had charisma and a good show-biz voice that he used to the hilt on his pop album -- which may have bombed, but it was a good, slick collection of dance-pop. Perhaps if it had been delivered earlier, at the end of 2002, just a few months after the conclusion of the first season instead of at the end of the second -- a release pattern that the show would follow beginning in 2003, after Justin's flop -- it might have been a bigger hit, but there's no use speculating: what happened happened, sending Guarini far away from the spotlight. And as American Idol dragged on through the years, piling up outright failures from runner-ups like Diana DeGarmo and Bo Bice, as winners like Fantasia Barrino and Ruben Studdard failed to become huge stars, Justin started to not seem so bad after all.
Hindsight may be 20/20, but that doesn't help get records made. It took a long time for Guarini to jump-start his career again, but he finally managed to finish his second album toward the end of 2005, a matter of weeks before the fifth season of the show began. Its title, Stranger Things Have Happened, is an immediate tip-off that Guarini has a sense of humor about a potential comeback, but as it turns out, it's not just as an allusion to the possibility of him returning to the spotlight -- it is surely a knowing allusion to his musical makeover, since this album finds him abandoning dance-pop for vocal jazz. True, it's loungey, Am-Idol-styled vocal jazz, but Stranger Things Have Happened is vocal jazz all the same, and while the material may not come as a surprise (it's old warhorses like "Night and Day," "My Funny Valentine," etc.), what is a surprise is that Guarini does give his band room to roam, to actually play with the arrangements and solo. It's not just a generous gesture, but it does signal that Justin is attempting to establish himself as a musician, not just a show-biz creation. If his talents nevertheless still lie toward the show-biz side of the equation, there's no shame in that -- he has genuine, natural charisma as a supper club-styled singer, and that charisma when contrasted with his band's jazz chops has a nice, relaxed appeal. This is best heard when Guarini sticks to delivering the song in his straight-ahead breezy style -- try as he may (and he tries on nearly every song here), Justin cannot scat and the album grinds to a halt whenever he tries to do so. But disregarding that, Stranger Things Have Happened is a surprisingly successful reinvention. At his heart, Guarini is still a show-biz creation, but this is a setting where his natural skills shine. Listening to it, it's easy to remember why he was a pop culture sensation for a few months in 2002.