Adele, Aretha Get Upstaged as Emeli Sande Plans Invasion

Emeli Sande
Emeli Sande at Cardiff's Cooper's Field on May 25, 2012. Sande's debut album "Our Version of Events" has topped the U.K. charts. Photographer: Tim Alban/Getty Images via Bloomberg

Her first name is Adele, and she’s the latest British soul singer to try to conquer the U.S.

She’s not Adele Adkins, the multi-Grammy-winner behind “Rolling in the Deep.” She’s Adele Emeli Sande, a former medical student who’s being compared to Aretha Franklin.

Sande’s dropped her first given name, not surprisingly. She still has the voice, the songs and the attitude -- with a support slot on Coldplay’s North American summer tour.

She will be worth the ticket price alone, based on her recent U.K. shows which have been continuing at a workaholic pace all year, including at London’s O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Lovebox Weekend on June 16 and the Hackney Weekend on June 23.

X-Factor mogul Simon Cowell has praised her, as have a phalanx of grizzled critics, normally the implacable enemies of anything touched by Cowell. Soul doyenne Alicia Keys and upstart U.K. rappers like Wiley and Professor Green have recorded with her, while Sande’s debut album “Our Version of Events” has topped the U.K. charts.

Watching her perform, it’s not difficult to fathom Sande’s popularity. A shocking-blonde super-size quiff dominates the top of her head. The performance matches the hair. Sande sounds as though she may have jet engines instead of lungs, all the better for belting out the big choruses she repeatedly rustles up.

Vocal Acrobatics

It also suits Sande’s musical style. For all her soul roots (she proved herself capable of deploying just enough wiggly vocal acrobatics to keep the occasional plain verse interesting), her basic four-piece band and two backing singers frequently slide into polished classic mid-tempo rock.

In the first half of the concerts, it’s all a bit like Air Supply. Crafted songs never quite transcend various combinations of ‘stand up for who you are’ platitudes and well-tried cliches.

The stripped-back drums and chugging guitar of “Tiger” bring to mind “Eye of the Tiger” by 1980s rockers Survivor.

“Read All About It (Part III)” is crooned earnestly over a solo piano before exploding into Bon Jovi power-balladry with swelling keyboards and ludicrous drum roll.

Then “My Kind of Love” switches leagues. The song, Sande explains in her gentle Scottish burr, was inspired by her experiences when training to be a doctor in a Glasgow hospital (she quit medicine in the fourth year of studies). She watched the interactions between patients and their visitors, and the result shows what Sande can do when her inspiration matches her technique.

A piano ballad, “Hope,” errs more toward the generalized sentiment of Lennon’s “Imagine” than to Adele’s intimate confessional style.

A slew of other numbers -- “Mountains,” ‘Next to Me” and new tune “Wonder” -- suggest she will find her own audience. “Heaven” is pleasingly reminiscent of Massive Attack’s classic “Unfinished Sympathy,” Sande soaring above the slick dance beats and swelling strings with uncomplicated pop pleasure.

Rating: ***.

What the Stars Mean:
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Mediocre
(No stars) Poor

“Our Version of Events” is on Virgin Records priced about $13 in the U.S. Download rates vary across services. Sande is playing three European festivals (Lounge on the Farm and T in the Park in the U.K. on July 6-7 and the Montreux Jazz Festival on July 14) before joining Coldplay’s North American tour starting July 23 in Toronto.


(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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