Whether vying for stardom on "American Idol" or just jockeying for attention at the local open mic, singer-songwriters need to be able to captivate an audience with their voice. Songwriting and musicianship have their place, of course, but if that voice isn't a distinctive instrument, it's next to impossible to separate yourself from the pack. Elizabeth Davis, on her exquisite self-titled 10-song album, scores on all points, but the first thing you notice is that voice. Davis has a reedy, almost husky quality to her tone, matched with a casual delivery that's both inviting and a bit sultry. It's almost as if she's kissing each lyric as she delivers it. Based in Omaha, Nebraska, she's recruited a top-notch cast of musicians to perform her compositions, which mix roots folk with a whisper of country and elements of classic American pop. She's got enough of a modern edge to appeal to fans of contemporary indie rock like Feist and Nicole Atkins, but her music's so rooted in timeless standards that she'd sound perfectly at home played alongside Linda Ronstadt and Patsy Klein on pop radio. The arrangements vary from full-band compositions like the sweet opening track, "I'll Be Okay," with Davis' guitar augmented with bass, drums, keyboards, and pedal steel, to stripped down pieces where she's accompanied by just a mandolin or ukulele. Davis also has a great ear for hooks. Nearly every song on the album features at least one line that sticks in your head long after the song's finished playing. Her cover of Conor Oberst's "The First Day Of My Life" invests the song with a delicate sense of melody and fleshes out the arrangement with a bit more country lilt than the raspy, bare-bones original by Bright Eyes, but retains the innocence and wonderment inherent in Oberst's lyric. There's a wistful sense of longing that Davis communicates in the romantic ballad "Anchor Me." "I lie alone and imagine your footsteps," she coos, accompanied by acoustic guitar and the gentle rhythm of an egg shaker. Mike Friedman's peeling pedal steel and Tom Ware's crisp drumming accentuate the warm country-western tone of "Streetlight." "You have eyes like windows, closed off against the cold," Davis sings on the chorus, as backup vocals sigh behind her and the gentle melody wafts the listener home. Effortlessly staying into her high register, Davis shows off both her range and the emotional strength of her voice here. "Flicker" communicates a powerful sense of regret, Davis' phrasing just perfect as she sadly sings of turning the page on a relationship. "It's not at all like they, like they say," she sighs, "we flicker, flicker, flicker away." The melancholy mood here is nicely accentuated by Ron Cooley's elegiac mandolin. Davis' strummed acoustic guitar takes center stage on the similarly disconsolate "All The Things You Said," which features one of the album's best choruses. "Don't leave me hanging in the quicksand of dread / all the things I want to believe are all the things you said." The hooky melody combined with mournfully pealing pedal steel provide pure pop perfection, heartbreakingly sad but also ear-pleasingly tuneful. Last year, the ukulele made a major comeback in pop music, with Youtube phenoms like Julia Nunes and Jake Shimabukuro reviving the instrument's popularity in a way not seen since the Great Depression. Davis is no slouch in this department either. Her "Memories Last" couples an old-time melody with strummed ukulele that very much recalls Brooklyn chanteuse April Smith. "You Win" flexes the band's country muscle again, powered by Friedman's pedal steel, and is followed by the aforementioned Conor Oberst cover. The ukelele returns on the album's final track, "Dawn," a stripped-down ballad that's just uke and Davis' sweet, evocative vocal. It's a fine way to end an impressive album, reminding us that first and foremost, Elizabeth Davis is a singer you won't soon forget. Review by Jim Testa Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
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