Various Artists

American Idol Season 2: All-Time Classic American Love Songs

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Building on the hype and excitement from the debut season of the populist pop star search American Idol and its subsequent CDs, American Idol Season 2: All-Time Classic American Love Songs presents the first recordings from 11 of the 12 finalists -- unfortunately, firecracker Vanessa Olivares, the first finalist voted off, isn't featured here -- as well as two ensemble performances. As the title suggests, the collection features studio versions of the songs the finalists sang for the "All-American Love Songs" theme night, and despite the somewhat pedestrian arrangements of the songs, each finalist does manage to put their imprint on their song, for better or worse. A somewhat top-loaded album, the collection offers songs from the show's two strongest contenders after beginning with the pleasant but unspectacular version of "What the World Needs Now Is Love" that the finalists performed with Burt Bacharach. As usual, Ruben Stoddard sounds polished but emotive on his cover of "Superstar," while Clay Aiken, whose voice sounds a little thinner on this recording than it does on the show, turns in a smooth version of "On the Wings of Love." From there the collection almost has nowhere to go but downhill, which it does to greater and lesser degrees with songs like Julia Demato's "At Last." Her voice is pretty, but too thin and bland to take on the Etta James classic, and in retrospect it's pretty clear why she was voted off relatively early in the show; likewise, Charles Grigsby has a sweet, pure-sounding voice that isn't quite up to the task of mastering Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed." On the studio version of "Three Times a Lady," Joshua Gracin sounds richer and more controlled than on TV, but still not quite as distinctive as the show's best performers. This indistinct quality plagues several of the songs, including Trenyce's "Let's Stay Together" and Rickey Smith's "Back at One," which is unusual considering that both of these singers turned in some of the better performances on the show; on the other hand, some of the more uneven singers turn in some of the album's more assured tracks, such as Kimberly Caldwell's "Killing Me Softly With His Song" and Carmen Rasmusen's "How Do I Live (Without You)." Kimberley Locke's smoky, professional-sounding version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" predicts her likely bronze-medal finish on the show, but still doesn't reflect the amazing amount of growth she experienced as a singer and a performer after the track was recorded. The album closes with an ensemble rendition of "God Bless the U.S.A. (Proud to Be an American)," which is about as stiff as the album-opening performance, but also underscores the patriotic theme that has influenced American Idol's second season. Aside from collecting performances from most of the finalists for fans who were sorry to see their favorite go sooner than they would have liked, American Idol Season 2: All-Time Classic Love Songs also emphasizes the strengths and weaknesses in the talents of the show's best performers; while it remains to be seen if Ruben Stoddard, Clay Aiken, and Kimberley Locke have the versatility of last season's winner, Kelly Clarkson, or the charisma of Tamyra Gray and Justin Guarini, it will be interesting to see where they go from here.

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