Various Artists

American Idol Season 3: Greatest Soul Classics

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Early on in season three of American Idol, Randy Jackson declared that the 2004 finalists were the finest crop of singers that the show had so far. American Idol Season 3: Greatest Soul Classics bears out that statement, more or less. This baker's dozen of soul songs gives the contestants the chance to prove themselves in the studio, which acts as an equalizer to the singers' respective talents. Nearly all the singers sound as good, or better, than they do on TV; Diana DeGarmo, for example, loses the high school talent show vibe she gives off occasionally with her rendition of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." Oddly enough, though, Jasmine Trias' voice sounds younger and thinner on "Midnight Train to Georgia," although some of that might be due to the song's teen pop-like arrangement. Some of the singers that were voted off the show early on get another chance to shine, and in some cases, they sound much better than they did when they were actually in the running. Leah Labelle, who had the dubious distinction of being the first contestant to leave the competition, sounds surprisingly strong and mature on "Betcha by Golly, Wow"; the studio brings out colors in her voice that she didn't display on-stage. Likewise, Camille Velasco, freed of the massive stage fright that took her out of the running, reminds listeners of what a uniquely smoky voice she possesses on "Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)." And Amy Adams, who was voted off the show quickly (and unjustly) in favor of the cute but less polished male singers, sounds just as good as she did on her brief run on the show on "You Make Me Feel Brand New." Her pure, delicate style really stands out in comparison to the bigger-voiced singers who dominated the later part of the competition, and while the arrangement of the song drags a bit, hearing Adams' voice again leads to thoughts of what might have been if she'd been able to stay on American Idol longer. Speaking of those male vocalists, Matt Rogers and Jon Peter Lewis both sound better, but blander, on their respective versions of "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" and "My Girl" than they did on the show. While Rogers is a competent vocalist, he just isn't as charismatic as some of the other singers are. Lewis, on the other hand, had lots of charisma on-stage, but here the sappy arrangement does a lot to undermine him; the intriguing, slightly Aaron Neville-ish timbre to his voice is all but gone until the end of the song. American Idol Season 3: Greatest Soul Classics also tends to underscore some of the flaws of this season's competition, such as the imbalance between male and female singers and the relative youth and inexperience of many of the contestants. Aspiring teenage crooner John Stevens has represented both of these problems at different points in the competition, but his "You Are Everything" is one of his best performances: his voice sounds a little deeper and has slightly less vibrato here than it does on TV, and finds him getting closer to the Rat Pack sound he idolizes. This performance, along with the big improvement he made on the Barry Manilow-hosted episode -- where he turned in a fairly convincing rendition of "Mandy" -- shows just how much further he and some of the other younger contestants on the show still have to go. The show's powerhouse singers mostly deliver the goods on record as well as they do on-stage, although Fantasia Barrino is hindered by a lukewarm funk arrangement on "Chain of Fools." While she doesn't "bobo" quite as much here as she does on television, the implicit and explicit Aretha Franklin comparisons in this song choice don't do her any her favors; Barrino's voice sounds a little slighter here than it does on TV, and her singing gets a bit too busy and shrill at the end of the song. LaToya London, on the other hand, sounds warmer here than on the show, where she can occasionally seem a little laid-back or aloof compared to some of the feistier female contestants. Her version of "If You Don't Know Me by Now" captures more nuances in her voice, including a breathiness and slight huskiness that balances the clarity of her singing. George Huff, meanwhile, turns in a masterful version of "Me and Mrs. Jones," one of the best pairings of song and singer in the history of American Idol. When Huff is on, he's the most appealing of this season's contestants, and he's very on here; unlike Ruben Studdard, whose "velvet teddybear" persona on-stage somehow didn't translate on record, Huff has just as much presence and personality in the studio as he does on-stage. Likewise, despite an intrusive arrangement, Jennifer Hudson succeeds on "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)," a song that allows her to not only show off those gospel-trained pipes that she displays every week, but also explores the higher, more restrained part of her range. Judging from this collection alone, she and Huff sound the most ready for a record contract -- they are the only two singers who manage to completely escape the album's canned, prefab quality and deliver something that goes a little deeper. Of course, these recordings are done quickly and the contestants are wearing out their voices with the rigors of the show, so in some ways it's notable that any of the singers sound good. At any rate, American Idol Season 3: Greatest Soul Classics is a reminder that how long a contestant stays on the show is just as much about personality (if not more so) than just raw talent.

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