Natalie Grant … Joy Williams … Rachael Lampa … Jaci Velasquez … I’m sure you can think of others who fit in the big-voiced “diva pop” genre (at least for a while). Admittedly, it’s not usually my style since the emphasis is on vocals and sentiments rather than creativity and originality. Yet for every one of these singers who fade into obscurity after a few years, there’s always one that seems to rise above the pack. As Grant once noted in an interview, she worked hard to be more than a pretty voice singing pretty songs.
There’s a sense that twenty-something newcomer Kerrie Roberts is striving for the same thing. This pastor’s daughter from southern Florida was a finalist on the WB network series Popstars, yet ultimately turned down the recording contract offered to her to study vocal performance at the University of Miami and eventually work on her music career herself.
Eventually Roberts signed with Reunion Records to release her self-titled debut (which coincidentally releases the same day as the latest recording from Natalie Grant). Though she had a hand in co-writing every song on the album, the first thing you’ll notice is her powerful and emotive vocal, which is not only good enough to be a finalist on Popstars but American Idol as well.
Roberts easily measures up to Jordin Sparks and any of the aforementioned female vocalists in Christian pop. And for sure, she holds her own with a big choir in the power ballad “Love Comes Down,” produced by Brown Bannister. Likewise, a so-so worship song like “Savior to Me (Sing Glory)” is truly elevated by Robert’s impressive performance.
But this is a style that relies just as much on production style as it does vocal prowess. Fortunately, producer Dan Muckala does impressive work with the lead single “No Matter What” with the heavy programmed percussion. True, the song is almost a rip-off of the Leona Lewis hit “Bleeding Love,” but it’s nonetheless refresing to hear Christian pop that sounds contemporary and not created on autopilot. Muckala also co-produced “Outcast” with Chuck Butler, and it’s one of the album’s few upbeat tracks with heavy electric guitars in the mix a la Britney Spears. Again, it may be a tad familiar, but at least it’s not dated sounding.
Wish I could say the same for all the other tracks. Producer Rob Graves (Natalie Grant) handled seven of Roberts’ ten tracks, and most of them fall into the same typical pop sound championed by Grant and Velasquez over the last decade. They’re generally not that interesting musically, and even a stripped down song like “Keep Breathing” seems old-hat, lacking a strong hook. At least “This Love Doesn’t Run” resembles the work of Sparks, and “Unstoppable” features similar programmed drums to “No Matter What,” only not as good. Only “Maybe I’m Afraid” stands out with its pop shuffle built over piano and strings.
Roberts’ songs rely on many of the usual themes (and co-writers) found in Christian AC pop, largely focused on keeping faith through times of suffering and remembering that God’s love endures. The words aren’t overly clichéd, but not particularly original or poetic sounding either, resembling hundreds of others in Christian pop dating back to the ‘90s. “Unstoppable” and “Keep Breathing” in particular suffer from the “hold on, you’re going to make it” formula of writing. At least there’s a certain degree of openness to the lyrics that make Roberts sound personable and relatable. Again, “Maybe I’m Afraid” stands out because it honestly conveys fears in developing a closer relationship with God.
For an artist in the big vocal-pop genre, though, this is not a bad start. It’s a likable enough debut that’s made more appealing by the strength of the vocals. I’ll even say that Kerrie Roberts is a shoe-in for a New Artist of the Year nomination at the 2011 Dove Awards. But how much longevity and artistic growth does Roberts have within her? Because many like her have come and gone over the years, and as Natalie Grant has proven, there’s more to a music career than just another pretty voice.
Standouts: “No Matter What,” “Outcast,” “Maybe I’m Afraid”