Tori Sparks

Rivers + Roads

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Florida native and Nashville transplant Tori Sparks issued her first full-length record in 2004 after a self-released EP the previous year. Rivers + Roads shows a dramatic improvement over that initial effort, its songcraft sparkling and Sparks' voice warm and inviting. Although her music tends toward twangy Americana and adult Top 40, Sparks' voice is most closely aligned with that of Shakira, notes rolling and seizing and bending with full emotional control. Sometimes the effects are simply stunning, as on the opener, "Trouble," whose baritone sax enhances its crime-noir vibe, and the rich and hypnotizing "When I Said." Other times, her understated arrangements tend toward the anonymous. But Sparks succeeds on several fronts: she delivers a very smart lyric in "The Contract," a tale of injustices and dreams deferred from a decidedly feminist perspective, and her voice is especially robust on the choice tracks "Red Letter Day" and "Remembering You." The latter, a luxurious string-laden ballad that closes the album, suggests that Sparks' torchy side may hold more commercial potential than her country side. Indeed, she doesn't essay into uptempo territory much but she does languid country-flavored pop very, very well. Tori Sparks offers intelligent themes and fresh approaches to well-worn ideas and emotions (with far better taste in material than, say, Jewel), and Rivers + Roads is especially recommended for those who never forgot how good Rosanne Cash can be; it's a winner of an album that lacks only a can't-miss single of a track.

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