Despite quietly racking up nearly two million sales of her Greatest Hits collection, Gabrielle shows no signs of changing her leisurely career stance, with her fourth studio album coming a full five years after 1999's career-defining Rise. The classic Motown vibes of "Give Me a Little More Time" and "Out of Reach" may have become her trademark sound, but rather than retreading old ground, Play to Win shows she isn't averse to going a bit country, with its 11 tracks full of twanging steel guitars and blues rhythms owing more than a nod to the old-school Southern soul of Candi Staton. It's a subtle reinvention which seems to suit Gabrielle's brooding but harmonious vocals, which have previously been able to adapt to rock, 2-step garage, and lounge pop despite her safe, MOR reputation. On lead single "Stay the Same," she appears to effortlessly slip into the role of wounded country chanteuse on a melancholic, lightly strummed number which sits somewhere between the tender moments of early Oasis and the wistful bluegrass-pop of the Dixie Chicks. Co-written with longterm collaborator Johnathan Shorten, Julian Gallagher (Kylie Minogue), and Richard Stannard (Spice Girls), the album's strong country influences are also fused with anthemic, Snow Patrol-esque indie ("Give and Take"), breezy summery pop ("Ten Years Time"), and acoustic R&B ("Picking Up the Pieces"). The album's high point, however, comes with "Fallen Angel," a subtle, folky ballad which neatly brings things full circle thanks to its similarity to Tracy Chapman's classic '80s hit "Fast Car," a track Gabrielle originally sampled on her debut chart-topper "Dreams." However, the authentic stripped-down production, a soothing accompaniment on early tracks, "Sometimes" and "You Used to Love Me" begins to feel a tad monotonous toward the final third of the disc, particularly on drab ballad "War of Two Minds" and the downbeat closer "Tumbling Down." Play to Win lacks the immediacy and infectious hooks of her previous three releases, but with lyrics tackling her own heartbreak, her nieces' difficult childhood, the Iraq war, and a brave, genre-shifting sound, it's her most introspective, personal, and mature effort to date.
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AllMusic Review by Jon O'Brien