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Mariah sings to her strengths on ‘Chanteuse’

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Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY

For a woman who has one of the most technically astonishing voices in pop music, Mariah Carey has at times seemed oddly inclined to try too hard. And who could blame her, really, given the gleeful snark that she has inspired in detractors — first for sounding (and looking) too perfect, then for her forays into hip-hop and attempts to sustain her viability as younger acolytes crowded the field.


So what’s most striking about Carey’s new album — titled, rather insistently, Me. I Am Mariah …The Elusive Chanteuse (***½ out of four) and now streaming on iTunes Radioahead of its May 27 release — is how relaxed and confident she sounds. Gone is the self-consciousness that marred her last studio album, 2009′s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel. Instead, Carey — whose delays of Chanteuse‘s release date inspired predictable hand-wringing (as did the less-than-spectacular performance of the lead singles) — gives the impression that her only concerns are meeting her own standards, and those of the fans who have stuck with her through everything.


The tender, aching ballads and joyful pop-soul numbers here both mark a return to form and reveal increased nuance, particularly in the singing. The artful melisma, robust belting and decorative high notes are still there, but Carey spends a great deal of time using her supple middle and lower registers to convey feeling simply and directly.


Tunes such as the pensive, piano-driven Cry and the dreamier Supernatural, an account of maternal love featuring Carey and husband Nick Cannon’s young twins, showcase the creamy and husky textures of her voice while keeping the focus on sentiment, not ornamentation. The spine-tingling Camouflage, co-written and produced by Carey and Big Jim Wright (other collaborators include longtime colleagues Jermaine Dupri and Rodney Jerkins), finds her pining performance embellished with gospel-tinged backing vocals.


There’s also a poignant cover of George Michael’s One More Try, and the snappy, twinkling Meteorite, which begins with Andy Warhol’s observation that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes — which seems truer today than it did when he made it, or when Carey’s career launched 25 years ago, for that matter. Elusive or not, this chanteuse is a survivor, and that’s a rare thing in today’s fickle, polarized pop landscape.






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