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On 'Awake,' Josh Groban stretches out

Josh Groban knows it's time to move beyond the uber-romantic popera anthems that have made him poster boy for the Adult Contemporary crowd. At 25, the mop-topped baritone has done all there is to do in the ersatz classical genre. On "Awake," in stores today, Groban attempts to stretch (here comes the tricky part) without alienating the many millions of devotees who bought his first two albums. And strange as it feels to praise the efforts of an artist whose music makes me cringe, Groban pulls it off.

The singer's mentor, soft-rock guru David Foster, has been invited to stay on, so there's no shortage of glossy strings and dramatic love songs sung in Romance languages. Gooiest of the bunch is an adaptation of "A Time for Us," the theme from Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film of "Romeo and Juliet." Foster, to his credit, isn't responsible for "You Are Loved (Don't Give Up)," a platitude-choked power ballad that combines the pulsing faux-portent of Vangelis and the soulless sweep of a Celine Dion blockbuster. It is, of course, the album's first single.

But Groban has widened his circle to include a well-chosen roster of new collaborators, among them Ladysmith Black Mambazo, pop tunesmiths Dave Matthews and Five for Fighting's John Ondrasik, ambient alt-rock composer Imogen Heap, and jazz icon Herbie Hancock. Moreover, he's managed to fold those artists' formidable offerings into his own signature sound.

"February Song," co-written by Groban, Ondrasik, and producer Marius DeVries (Madonna, Bjork), and "So She Dances," also produced by DeVries, are giant steps for Groban -- away from sickly sweetness and melodrama and toward something no less lush but a whole lot classier. "Lullaby" is an even more gratifying departure: a stark, gracious meditation co-written with Matthews and Jochem Van Der Saag performed a cappella with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The South African vocal group also appears on "Weeping," Groban's commendable but awkward foray into social commentary.

Groban's well-schooled technique has relegated him to a narrow slice of the musical pie. He's too formal to put over a mainstream pop song, and under-endowed to master an operatic repertoire. But with the help of Heap's enchanted instrumentation on "Now or Never" and Hancock's slippery Rhodes keyboard on the funk-rock-lite track "Machine," the middle of the road feels like a fit for Groban.

Joan Anderman can be reached at

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