Likes: Funny, Falling Slow
Overall: Surprisingly underwhelming and contrary
The 1st I saw and heard of Tori Kelly was on the 2015 Billboard Music Awards (I think), as a "heading off to commercial break" showcase artist, singing "Nobody Love." I wasn't particularly struck by and didn't care for the song, but said "Dang, she can sing!" In this industry climate, anyone that gives me strong vocals gets my attention. I instantly followed her on Twitter and sent her kudos. After catching a few other television appearances of hers, where she explained how she let go of a record deal in the name of artistic integrity and announced a forthcoming LP, I thought "Instant buy. There's no way someone who's that pressed about their work (and can sing) would have a less than bloody-fantastic album." I was mistaken. Kelly's "Unbreakable Smile" debut on Capitol/Schoolboy Records (Schoolboy is the brainchild of talent manager and entrepreneur Scooter Braun) was a disappointment to me. I dropped my earphones feeling like a victim of false advertisement. Given the tinges of R&B on "Nobody Love," and Kelly's guitar-playing and soulful vocal delivery, I expected a cool, acoustic soul record. Instead, I got vanilla, coffee-shop background music that leaned more to pop. It sounded like a collection of "I was just strumming on my guitar at home and this is what I came up with" songs. Although some cuts are sufficiently written (she has credits on every one), there isn't much perceptible conviction, except for when she's asserting she won't play the fame-game (ex. "Unbreakable Smile," "Funny"). She reiterates this so much, it's annoying. It also makes things that much more confounding, because if she's "keepin' it 100" as the kids say, why is TV Tori so different from album Tori? Did the music producers (which include Toby Gad and pop-master Max Martin) encourage her to sing as blandly and lightly as possible? Did they take melodic liberties or control that she didn't contest? Something's not adding up. Even as a pop record, "Smile" doesn't stand up straight, as it's largely devoid of "general public listening" qualities. It just doesn't catch on. "Who Knew" that could happen with Martin in the mix (pun very much intended; he co-wrote and co-produced said Pink hit)? It might make some indie purists really happy to hear that, though.