***"Audio Day Dream" (19 Recordings/Arista)
THE blockbuster commercial success of Chris Daughtry's debut album over the last year has undoubtedly helped get "American Idol" contestants' music taken seriously by the record-buying (or -downloading) public.
In at least one sense, though, "Daughtry's" multi-platinum sales have actually done a disservice to future "Idol" veterans. Now more than ever these young singers are expected to present a fully defined musical persona right out of the gate. Gone are the days of Kelly Clarkson, the first-season champ who only recently seems to have figured out what kind of records she wants to make.
You can hear evidence of that pressure -- as well as of the struggle against it -- all over Season 6 runner-up Blake Lewis' debut, "Audio Day Dream" (due Dec. 4). This might be the most breathlessly paced, detail-packed "Idol" outing yet; if Carrie Underwood hadn't already called her new sophomore set "Carnival Ride," Lewis could've used the title here.
As his performances on the show demonstrated, Lewis boasts a proudly eclectic creative sensibility: He appeared equally adept (and equally goofy) singing rock, pop and R&B; he also made it clear that in his view, there's no genre that can't be improved by a bit of beat-boxing. (One observer he failed to convince: Jon Bon Jovi, who infamously scowled through Lewis' overhaul of "You Give Love a Bad Name.")
On "Audio Day Dream" -- the title is a play on attention-deficit disorder -- Lewis tries hard to pack in everything he loves about music, flitting from Coldplay-style balladry ("Without You") to synthed-up electro-funk ("Break Anotha") to defanged hip-hop ("Know My Name," which features a cameo by Lupe Fiasco). He knows how narrow the window is for proving himself worthy of his audience's interest, so he's reimagined the debut album as a highlight reel.
Though it features input by industry heavyweights J.R. Rotem and Mike Elizondo, Lewis' principal collaborator on "Audio Day Dream" is songwriter and producer Ryan Tedder, whose band OneRepublic's "Apologize" (a collaboration with Timbaland) has ruled Top 40 radio this fall. Tedder and Lewis trick out their mercilessly catchy tunes with loads of delicious ear candy: In "Gots to Get Her," they layer a vocal melody inspired by "Puttin' on the Ritz" over fluttering acoustic guitars and triumphant R&B; horns, while "Surrender" pairs grinding Depeche Mode keyboards with a pounding hard-rock beat.
In an interview last week, Lewis said his goal was to make a record that reflected his live show, which he's been performing since before his "Idol" stint and which features Lewis using a variety of pedals to construct intricate loops with which he accompanies himself. Yet what "Audio Day Dream" captures isn't the spontaneity or the scrappiness of a concert. Rather, with its dense soundscapes and sly stylistic juxtapositions, it foregrounds the exacting nature of studio work and image-building. Listening to this music, you don't think of a guy whirling around onstage -- you picture someone hunched over a mixing console in a windowless room.
That's no knock: "Idol" has produced several terrific vocalists, but it hasn't really yielded an artist as obsessed with sound as Lewis is. His singing on "Audio Day Dream" is fine; it gets the job done. Yet what arrests your ear are Lewis' ideas. With any luck, he'll get the opportunity to keep developing them.
Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed have been released unless otherwise indicated.