Estelle, "Shine" (Atlantic)
In the context of contemporary British soul music, 28-year-old Estelle Swaray is something of a novelty. It's not because of her reference points, which range from classic hip-hop to lovers' rock reggae to 1980s pop, and not because she raps even better than she sings, effortlessly switching between the two. No, it's because unlike Amy Winehouse or the retro-soul comers Duffy or Adele, Estelle is black.
British soul music -- at least the vintage variety -- has lately been dominated by young white women. But Estelle's take on her charming if sometimes blithe U.S. debut has a more modern antecedent: the decade-old "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill." Hill pulled off a neat trick, using the grammar of hip-hop to add texture to an essentially conservative classic-soul sound.
But Estelle shares just as much and maybe more with a newer hip-hop-soul hybrid: Fergie. Apart from the disco-lite single "American Boy," which features Kanye West, Estelle lacks Fergie's commitment to the saccharine.
But she, too, understands flexibility. She riffs on lyrics from George Michael and Boogie Down Productions. And, like Fergie, she gleefully nods to rap aficionados in her musical choices, using the same Screamin' Jay Hawkins sample as the Notorious BIG and the same Grover Washington Jr. song as a Tribe Called Quest and Black Moon.
But the cheekiest wink of all is on "Pretty Please (Love Me)," on which Estelle is backed by a full band playing frisky retro soul. As she trades verses with the raspy belter Cee-Lo (of Gnarls Barkley), Estelle sounds quite a lot like Winehouse. No reason the borrowing can't go both ways, right?
JON CARAMANICA, NEW YORK TIMES
Neil Diamond, "Home Before Dark" (Columbia)
Getting Diamond out of his Vegas mode was not an easy task. Producer Rick Rubin partially succeeded in getting the veteran back to his roots on their first collaboration, "12 Songs," in 2005.
On "Home Before Dark," Rubin and Diamond take their free-flowing brand of chemistry to the next level. The singer sounds more confident, more in control and more impassioned than he did last time out. When he sings with Dixie Chick Natalie Maines on the piano-based ballad "Another Day (That Time Forgot)," their voices blend beautifully; when he carries an irresistible melody over shimmering guitars on "The Power of Two," it's a refreshing reminder of all that got lost during those years when he scored staggering commercial success, and when he turns in the spirited, deeply reflective "One More Bite of the Apple," he seems positively energized.
Diamond performs July 19-20 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
KEVIN O'HARE, NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE