The wink that Simon Cowell gave Tamyra Gray when she had to leave the first season of American Idol (prematurely, many think) clearly meant quite a bit. Even though Gray didn't win or even come in second place, she now seems to have the most interesting and diverse career of any of the American Idol contestants. Despite some label problems early on, Gray remained prominent while she made her debut album by acting on shows such as Tru Calling and Boston Public and, of course, appearing on the third season of American Idol. And, with Justin Guarini's self-titled debut album a non-starter, the forces behind the show redoubled their support behind Gray, not only featuring her on the show but also entrusting her to write "I Believe," the song that the winner of the series' third season recorded as her first single. Gray also wrote or co-wrote all of the songs but one on The Dreamer, an album that reveals Gray as more than the elegant contestant who turned out flawless, seemingly effortless performances week after week until illness brought on by American Idol's grueling schedule claimed her voice. The American Idol contestants who have had the most success in their recording careers are the ones with the most distinctive personalities: spunky, down-to-earth Kelly Clarkson and sweet, big-voiced Clay Aiken. Their albums reflected these images, but The Dreamer's mix of old-school soul, funk, and singer/songwriter pop acknowledges the ambitious Gray from the show and, in its best moments, suggests a fun, funky side that wasn't always evident on American Idol. Essentially, The Dreamer is the first American Idol neo-soul album, complete with horn and string-laden arrangements and back-in-the-day references, the most charming of which is "Good Ol' Days," a shoutout to 1985 where Gray sings "Fat Albert and Prince were my two favorite things." The Dreamer works best in this upbeat, funky mode, exemplified by its first two tracks, "Star" (which sounds more soulful and immediate here than it did on American Idol) and the fun, nostalgic "The Only Thing." The album's ballads, however, are less consistent. Too many of them tend to be meandering and formless, and seemingly constructed of nothing but vocal vamps. Gray's voice is lovely and powerful enough to carry off songs like "Legend" and "Raindrops Will Fall" (which also sounds better than it did on TV), but "Like a Child" -- which, despite its interesting production, isn't much of a song -- and the pretty but rambling "Yesterday/Today" tend to make the album slump. These songs tend to raise the issue of just how good a songwriter Gray actually is; her voice is so strong that she can make even the clunkiest song, like "God Bless the Dreamer" (which, to be fair, Gray didn't write), sound better than it actually is. Still, the album has enough winning moments, like the sweet, old-school love song "17"; the sassy kiss-off "Ha Ha"; and the disco-funk of "Don't Stop (Keep It Coming)" to overcome its slumps and show that Gray does have talent as a songwriter that should be nurtured by working with stronger collaborators on her next album. Even though The Dreamer doesn't quite deliver on all of its ambitions, it's still a strong debut and one of the better ones that the American Idol phenomenon has produced.
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares