A healthy skepticism for celebrity vanity projects runs in the critic's blood, and with good cause: Aspirational polymaths often look a lot like dilettantes. Consider Ron Wood's paintings, Michael Jordan's baseball career, or William Shatner's "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"—cultural oddities consigned to the scrapheap of Thursday-night trivia. Molly Ringwald, who in 1992 moved to France in order to escape the shadow of John Hughes, has already established herself as a crossover aspirant, publishing her first novel, When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories, to tepid reception in 2012. This year, Ringwald is releasing another book and, as if novel-writing and starring in The Secret Life of the American Teenager weren't enough, her very first album.
Except Sometimes is a strange little collection of jazz semi-standards with a strong tilt toward Broadway. It's a pleasant, only occasionally irksome effort, buoyed by sturdy work on the part of Ringwald's trumpeter and bassist. The arrangements are at turns engaging and anodyne, and the would-be chanteuse maintains a clean tone and the over-crisp enunciations of the showtune idiom. This is Ringwald establishing her Diana Krall creds, which would work nicely if she had the pipes to pull it off. But beware those long vibratos, which represent parlous terrain for Ringwald on Stephen Sondheim's "Sooner or Later," a song of furtive sexual predation first performed by Madonna in Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy. That's a hard standard to meet, and Ringwald doesn't.
Elsewhere, things brighten, sometimes where one least expects, as in the case of "Where Is Love," from Lionel Bart's Oliver. In the show, it's sung by the titular waif who just wants the warmth of a mother; here, it's a smartly phrased expression of world-weary lovesickness. Ringwald is no longer the virginal lip-biter of Sixteen Candles: "Where Is Love" is the lament of a woman who's known plenty of love, its loss and absence therefore all the more painful. Other selections simply baffle. Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields's "Pick Yourself Up" was bad when Astaire and Rogers sang it, so it's hardly the tune to prop up the second half of a flagging album.
On the spectrum of vanity projects, Except Sometimes far outstrips Gwyneth Paltrow's country-western excursions without ever quite achieving the distinction and charm of Zooey Deschanel singing trad jazz over ukuleles. Deschanel punches above her weight, vocally speaking, but Jonathan Lethem once wrote that the secret to good popular singing lies in the proper negotiation between your limitations and your aspirations. Here, it doesn't even feel like Ringwald's punching; her signature tic is to start each line an eighth note or so too late, a technique that feels less effortless than lazy (pregnant pauses do not constitute phrasing). The most self-aware moment is the closing song, a soft-jazz take on "Don't You (Forget About Me)," the iconic theme song from The Breakfast Club. Reframing the song with a jazz combo highlights the rather dopey lyrics, but that appears to be part of the joke. "You wouldn't be buying this CD if my name wasn't Molly Ringwald," is the message—and on this score, at least, she straight-up nails it.