Considering that she’s one of the only American Idol contestants ever to transcend the show’s karaoke trappings, it’s not much of a surprise that season seven finalist and erstwhile professional background singer Melinda Doolittle offers, with Coming Back to You, what is easily the strongest, most self-assured debut album by any of the show’s many alums. Doolittle’s run on Idol was characterized by unusually shrewd, genre-aware song choices and a vocal style that cast her as a throwback to classic R&B singers who relied more on soul and distinctive phrasing than the show’s usual substitutions of melisma and glory notes. So rather than attempt to adopt contemporary trends that would be ill-fitting with her natural talents, Doolittle and producer Mike Mangini have wisely opted for a retro-minded style that falls right into the singer’s wheelhouse, and the result is the first Idol debut that functions as a fully realized statement of artistic identity.
Although the album is a collection of covers, many of these songs are relatively unknown (opener “Fundamental Things” is lifted from one of Bonnie Raitt’s lesser recent albums, while “If I’m Not In Love” was most recently done by Faith Hill), meaning that Doolittle is not competing with any iconic performances. That gives the singer ample room to flex her considerable muscle: She vamps and growls through a sultry rendition of blues legend Bobby Johnson’s extraordinary “Dust My Broom” and conveys a palpable sense of longing on the title track. It would be too easy to call these readings effortless; that Doolittle has put serious thought into her phrasing throughout the record is clear on standout cuts like “Walkin’ Blues” and the torchy “It’s Your Love.”
On the whole, Mangini’s production choices successfully recreate an old-school R&B vibe, making excellent use of a Hammond B3 and brass section flourishes that never pull focus from Doolittle. What keeps the album from standing fully alongside like-minded records such as Sharon Jones & the DAP Kings’s 100 Days, 100 Nights or even Nikka Costa’s Pebble to a Pearl is that the production is a bit too studio-slick for Doolittle’s lived-in vocals, and the session musicians, while undeniably talented, never quite cohere into sounding like a real band. That her backup occasionally lets her down, though, ultimately speaks to how confident Doolittle sounds here. Coming Back to You is an impressive opening salvo—even without the “for an American Idol” qualifier.