Blending equal amounts of Sade's cocktail-lounge take on world music, Jill Scott's dignified neo-soul and Corinne Bailey Rae's sunny AAA pop, the debut album by German singer/songwriter Ayo sounds like it will be a mainstay in middle-of-the-road coffee houses for years to come. The daughter of a Roma gypsy mother and Nigerian father, Ayo Ogunmakin makes exactly the sort of polite, low-key, largely acoustic pop-soul that's a mainstay of a certain mature, well-heeled demographic; indeed, a live Ayo performance recorded in Monte Carlo was a popular PBS special in late 2007. But while all that implies a certain inoffensive blandness, Ayo's a genuinely talented singer/songwriter, with a malleable voice that swings easily from the helium-pitched wispiness of the gentle bossa nova "And It's Supposed to Be Love" through the Tracy Chapman-like murmur of "What Is Love?" to the assertive, soulful strength of "Letter by Letter." While there are occasional missteps like the utterly forgettable reggae cop "Only You," Ayo's songwriting is refreshingly free of the earnest self-importance of many similar artists, trafficking neither in exhibitionist emo-porn nor the sort of vague sub-Bob Marley moralizing that's the usual province of dreadlocked white guys in hemp shorts. Joyful may not be the most exciting debut of 2006, but it's a satisfying example of a subgenre that all too often goes wrong.
AllMusic Review by Stewart Mason
feat: Carl Ayotte