Julia Fordham

Julia Fordham's new Concrete Love is smooth sounds, all right, kinda jazzy and intimate, and bubbly with the occasional quasi-Brazilian rhythm, with a thin veneer of self-congratulatory sophistication. It's music for former music lovers, and it completely lacks teeth. But it wasn't always so.

Her 1988 self-titled debut and 1989 follow-up Porcelain were studies in a stripped-down, unrelenting earnestness that has since been left in the dust. Earlier singles like "Happy Ever After" and "Porcelain" revealed an intelligent young woman who had big (though gentle) questions about partnerships, thus winning a loyal female fan base (cf. Suzanne Vega or Shawn Colvin).

Concrete Love is her sixth release, an attempted return to austerity after some flings with heavier orchestration, and it's a testament to a woman who's run out of big questions and the conflicts that raise them. Lyrics are straight outta the Songwriting 101 manual ("I'd walk a million miles in anybody's shoes just to be with you"), and her chord progressions so predictable and bland you find yourself pining for the Gershwins, or hell, even Oasis.

But live, her ever-impressive contralto will make these milquetoast tunes deceptively convincing. Her trademark bellowing hugs the tracks like a fine-tuned rally car. Except on her cover choice of the multi-octave "Lovin' You"; didn't anyone tell her that an episode of South Park has destroyed that one for good? The yuppie moms will turn up and dig her more than ever.

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Christina Rees