Hear Me Out: Jennifer Holliday, A Great Big World

By Chris Azzopardi

Jennifer Holliday, 'The Song Is You'

Jennifer Holliday is not going. And even though it's been 23 years since the Grammy winner - the original Effie in Broadway's "Dreamgirls" - released a secular solo studio album, she's telling you ... and you ... and you. On "The Song Is You," a lovey-dovey set of standards and R&B notables rooted in her trademark theatrics, Holliday sings with the fierceness and soul of Effie, proving one thing: She's still got it. Hear her tear into "At Last," singing it from all the way down in her gut, and you know that's the sound of a woman who's feeling every last word of what Etta James was preaching. She lets loose on the jazzy title track, a big-band cover that would make even Ol' Blue Eyes himself a proud man, and lets her voice drop down to the floor on the slinky "Touch." On both tracks, and throughout the album, the use of live strings and horns - and not fabricated instrumentals - creates a warm and inviting atmosphere that feels fresh and classic. When she reaches the soulful power ballad "The One You Used to Be," a song Holliday wrote for Whitney Houston that was never released by the late singer, she's all passion and pain, her voice climbing all the way up to the clouds. When it's over, you'll stand up. You'll applaud. And you should anyway, for the very fact that "This Song Is You" impressively showcases a diva who's slipped under the world's radar. Let this be Jennifer Holliday's big comeback - because, if you didn't already, you're gonna love her. Grade: B+

A Great Big World, 'Is There Anybody Out There?'

Just thinking about it turns me into a geyser, but "Say Something," the star-making single from Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino (better known as overnight sensation A Great Big World), really takes a piece out of you. An achingly beautiful ballad about letting go that's understated, honest and heartfelt, it's the kind of song made for curling up in the fetal position and sobbing into a pillow. The original, with just the guys, and the radio single - where Christina Aguilera somehow holds back the belts, harmonizing with powerful nuance and turning out one of her most affecting performances - both fill out the album. The song, with Aguilera particularly, is genius and timeless - everything Big World's debut is not. The Hallmark cliches certainly don't help (the titles alone know no subtlety: "You'll Be Okay," "Cheer Up!" and "I Really Want It"), and Axel's cloying Muppet-man voice isn't enough to elevate them beyond cheesy grade-school platitudes - but the real problem lies in the bad-Broadway, bad-Billy Joel music. The crescendoing "Already Home," a goopy slowie, is what you expect to hear during the sad goodbye at the end of a WB drama, the Five for Fighting-ish "Rockstar" pretends to be edgy and "Everyone is Gay," while laudable for its social conscience, is so over-the-top cartoonish its message of inclusivity gets lost. And to think this is the same duo that was having a brilliant Adele-like moment with "Say Something" - a song that promised so much more. Am I giving up on them? Not just yet, but I'm sad and disappointed and I need my pillow. Grade: C

Also Out

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, 'Give the People What They Want'

Soul-funk priestess Sharon Jones brings the fire and lights up everything in her path when she blazes through "Retreat!" off her follow-up to 2010's "I Learned the Hard Way." "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," she proclaims - and she's not kidding. For nearly 30 minutes, Jones does, indeed, give the people - the fed-up, the heartbroken, the underdogs - what they want: empowerment.

Rosanne Cash, 'The River & the Thread'

Like her late father, Johnny, there's an insightful authenticity to the stories Rosanne Cash tells on "The River & the Thread," the first great country release of this year. Her low-key prayer "Tell Heaven" shines a light on lost souls, a guitar/drum mix drive "Modern Blue" into a mellowing crawl that's moody and moving, and "When the Master Calls the Roll" is songwriting at its richest.

Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at http://www.chris-azzopardi.com.

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