Still best-known for his brace of early-'90s AOR hits, Idaho singer-saxophonist Curtis Stigers has spent the 2000s showcasing the jazz credentials he developed during jam sessions with his hometown's star pianist, Gene Harris. His eighth studio album, Real Emotional, may feature three self-penned compositions, the most since signing to the Concord label in 2001, but its continuing over-reliance on cover versions suggests that he's still not entirely confident with his shift in direction. It's a shame that he lacks the courage of his convictions, as "I Need You," a melancholic, piano-led, cocktail bar ballad which highlights Stigers' vocal reinvention from blue-eyed soul pin-up to mature, smoky-voiced troubadour; "I Only Want to Be with You," a shuffling Norah Jones-esque country-blues number co-written with younger brother Jake, and "A Woman Just Like You," a toe-tapping slice of seductive salsa, are all worthy of sitting alongside the more familiar material. However, Real Emotional still manages to avoid the lazy tribute approach favored by his mainstream contemporaries; although there are renditions of tracks by performers whom Stigers has previously tackled, such as Tom Waits ("San Diego Serenade"), Randy Newman (the title track), and Mose Allison ("Your Mind Is on Vacation"), the selection of classics from The Great American Songbook are not as predictable as you'd expect. Alongside his Hammond organ-led take of Emmylou Harris' "I Don't Wanna Talk About It Now," there's a Sinatra-style interpretation of Stephen Merritt's "As You Turn to Go," and a swinging blues adaptation of Dan Zanes' "Night Owl," while Stigers also puts his own spin on the more recognizable standards, turning Bob Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" into a sophisticated double bass-heavy Rat Pack number, and substituting the acoustic guitar for twinkling piano keys on Paul Simon's "American Tune," while still retaining the emotion of the original. Real Emotional, therefore, cleverly avoids the trap of falling into pleasant background music, but it could have been more engaging if Stigers just had a little more faith in his own songwriting abilities.
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AllMusic Review by Jon O'Brien