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EntertainmentMusic & ArtsFantasia Barrino 'Back to Me' review: 'American Idol' winner makes a wail of a comeback album
Jim Farber

'Back to Me'
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Fantasia Barrino 'Back to Me' review: 'American Idol' winner makes a wail of a comeback album

Tuesday, August 10th 2010, 4:00 AM

Fantasia Barrino's new album. her first release in four years, far outperforms her first two works.
Fantasia Barrino's new album. her first release in four years, far outperforms her first two works.
'Back to Me,' by Fantasia (J Records)
'Back to Me,' by Fantasia (J Records)

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Fantasia Barrino has been leading one of the most over-explained lives in modern pop. In just the last four years, the third season winner of "American Idol" published her autobiography, took part in a TV movie about her life, and starred in her own VH1 reality show.

That's a lot of telling without much showing.

It may seem perplexing at first, then, that Fantasia titled her third and latest album "Back To Me," as if the focus ever strayed to any other subject.

Luckily, the disc doesn't so much offer another "back to me" fit of narration as it does provide a striking reminder of why we cared about her back story to begin with. Namely: a voice that's imbued with as much history and character as Fantasia's hyper-dramatized life.

Never has that voice found a more sure setting than now. "Back To Me," Fantasia's first release in 4 years, far outperforms the singer's first two works, with meatier hooks, firmer melodies, and a more shrewdly focused point of view. Yet none of those qualities outshine the strange and fascinating voice that lies at the album's core.

No one can call Fantasia Barrino a pretty singer. Her vocals can be gutteral and wheezy, or pinched when she strains for the big notes. Her phrasing often veers into the blunt and wild. And her timbre has an odd tang to it.

But like the best "character singers," Fantasia uses her mangier qualities to assert
her individuality, and to prove her conviction. It's a quality she shares with two other ungainly divas of soul: Patti Labelle and Mary J. Blige. None have voices of conventional beauty, but all win us over by aiming high and swinging wild.

The songs on "Back To Me" give Fantasia a wide berth for her patented wails. They're catchy but not overly formal. Many weave in bits of older soul songs, either via allusions
or outright samples from Isaac Hayes, The Stylistics, and Ashford and Simpson. "The Thrill Is Gone" (not the B.B. King song) makes good use of Hayes' scene- stealing drum beat from his 1970 cover of "Walk On By." It serves as a set up for Fantasia's own wrenching disclosures. "Teach Me" nicks a Bob Marley lick, only to work it into a cool melody of its own. The CD's sole stumble recycles a song from "The Color Purple," the musical Fantasia starred in for an entire year. It's too starchy and self-consciously theatrical to jive with the rest.

The album's lyrics retain a tight focus, stressing Fantasia's connection to emotionally-
reluctant men, while making sure to explain how she's no longer the kind that loves them. But Fantasia can kick up her heels too, as in "Collard Greens and Cornbread" (not the Anthony Hamilton song). A pure sex piece, the song allows the singer to luxuriate in the earthiness of her style. It's a southern, humid, and grinding approach she has, qualities that makes her sounds even more compelling than her story.

jfarber@nydailynews.com

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