Serena Ryder

Unlikely Emergency

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With the standard-issue, off-center, extreme close-up of the album cover showing off the singer/songwriter's equally regulation-issue nose ring and lank hair, it's forgivable if one's first reaction to Serena Ryder's debut album is "Oh dear, not another Alanis Morissette clone." Learning that Ryder is a precocious 21-year-old from Ontario (as Morissette once was herself) doesn't exactly help, but prepare for a shock. Unlikely Emergency not only isn't awful, it's genuinely really good. Ryder's voice and guitar are backed by Toronto art pop gadfly Hawksley Workman (who produces and plays drums), and a pair of his regular cohorts, bassist Derrick Brady, and ex-Waltons keyboardist Todd Lumley, but this is Ryder's show all the way. Possessor of a startlingly soulful and commanding voice -- the closest point of comparison is '80s electro-soul powerhouse Alison Moyet, and she absolutely blows away that pretender to the throne Joss Stone -- Ryder delivers her own songs (mostly mid-tempo rock with occasional folk and jazz touches) with unshakeable authority and then casually tops herself with a sterling a cappella rendition of the Etta James standard "At Last." The album isn't perfect -- on the weakest track, the overwrought "Skin Crawl," Ryder does actually sound a lot like Morissette, and that's never a good thing -- but with inventively weird songs like the voice-and-drums holler "Sing Sing" and catchy pop tunes like "Just Another Day," Unlikely Emergency has the depth and range of a seasoned pro.

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