Jordin Sparks didn't win the sixth season of "American Idol" because she was the most consistent performer - that was pro ace Melinda Doolittle - or the showiest entertainer - hello busy beat-boxing runner-up Blake Lewis. The 17-year-old won, in part, because she lived up to her surname by applying the kind of bright-eyed "why not?" enthusiasm that only an overachieving teenager could to everything from moldy, aged melodramatic ballads to spunky contemporary rock songs. Even as she floundered through Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" she was obviously having fun and the most dial-happy viewers of "Idol" - teens likely doing a little vicarious living - rewarded her moxie.
On her self-titled debut, out today, Sparks and a cast of au courant pop producers combine that sense of sparkle, striving, and her powerful pipes for an age-appropriate, uniformly pleasant release that shouldn't disappoint those voters.
Unlike many of her "Idol" predeces sors, Sparks eschews the all-things-to-all-people approach. Instead her handlers wisely have her rotating on a dance-pop-soul axis in the vein of Beyonce, Nelly Furtado, and Christina Aguilera. It's going to take Sparks a little while longer to establish a creative identity in a way those women have - she's a little too formless vocally here - but the potential is obvious.
As has been the case for a few years, the Norwegian songwriting/production team billed as StarGate shows a real flair for wedding analog instrumentation to digital cool on "Just for the Record," which should be a ubiquitous smash on the order of "Irreplaceable." The songs share a formula: a sing-song melody that adheres instantly to the brain, a leisurely groove punctuated by clap-beats and twitchy percussion, and an almost country-style guitar riff. "Record" has the added bonus of a winding whistle in the background that adds to the sunny day, forward momentum. It may be a template, and one they use to less shiny effect on first single "Tattoo," but it's a cookie cutter that offers reliably pleasing shapes.
Considering the magic wielded by Bloodshy and Avant on Britney Spears's latest album, it's no surprise that the duo's work sounds even more buoyant here with a gifted vocalist working the lite funk-disco numbers - copping swagger and stomp from Prince and Giorgio Moroder - that is their trademark. The only gripe is they could've allowed Sparks the vocal room Moroder afforded Donna Summer because, although a certain chill is necessary for these synth-driven tracks, she skews to the robotic side on songs like "See My Side."
The Underdogs provide Sparks and duet partner Chris Brown a polished platform for the wistful ode to teen heartache "No Air," and "High School Musical" songsmith Robbie Nevil offers the curlicue pep of "One Step at a Time."
The album deflates quickly at the tail end as two sore thumb ballads, the cringe-inducing "empowerment" anthem "God Loves Ugly" and her mediocre "Idol" song "This Is My Now," offer vocal gymnastics and nothing else.
On "Just for the Record" Sparks declares that she's "smart enough to stay right where I belong." This debut backs up that statement.