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Record Reviews: Miguel and Elle Varner

Two R&B underdogs breaking through.

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It's been a good year for R&B, with major albums from major stars conventional (Usher), retro (R. Kelly), and groundbreaking (Frank Ocean). But the two best R&B albums of the year might come from a couple of newish artists — RCA labelmates — at least a little more under the radar.

Miguel's second album, Kaleidoscope Dream, is familiar lover-man R&B fighting through an unfamiliar psychedelic haze. It climaxes, so to speak, at the very beginning, with the killer lead single "Adorn," which updates the graceful erotic throb of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" for the electronic age. "Let my love adorn you," Miguel sings, scatting, soaring, and pleading over a spongey bass line, clicking percussion, and hiccuping vocal loops.

Nothing that follows is as undeniable, but on this comfortably weird collection, plenty comes close. The single "Arch & Point" is an unusually elegant sex instructional, while the R-rated "P***y Is Mine" is not as presumptuous as that title would be in lesser hands. A rubbery, slow-motion interpolation of the Zombies' '60s hit "Time of the Season" on "Don't Look Back" and a synthesis of "Do you like drugs?" and "Do you like love?" on the song "Do You ..." cement the album's mood.

Where Miguel, like all the other leading men of R&B this year, is essentially a formalist, the under-recognized Elle Varner is more song-oriented.

If Varner's 2012 debut, Perfectly Imperfect, is my favorite album of 2012 — I've still got a few weeks to figure that out — it's probably the album I've come back to most this year.

As a pure singer, Varner is high-generic — very high — which by R&B standards means not recognizable on impact but still pretty damn good. As a personality, her very ordinariness feels groundbreaking.

Varner's no larger-than-life sex symbol like Beyoncé or Rihanna. She's no coffee-house queen or alt-soul iconoclast like Jill Scott or Erykah Badu. She's no streetwise, rap-bred tough chick like early Mary J. Blige. Her lyrical penchant for concrete detail and everyday situations is more reminiscent of country than R&B. Her Everygirl vibe and good humor suggest Brit alt-popper Lily Allen. And on this debut album, she nails one purposeful, personality-packed song after another — 11 in all, at least nine of which are distinct and memorable after only a few listens.

"Oh What a Night" might be the best club song in an era lousy with them — not to mention worthy of a title that's been well-claimed already. Personifying her mistreated liver, getting a hazy, next-day play-by-play from her roomie, rhyming "natural disaster" with "I really gotta go and see my pastor," her great night out is treacherous and awkward and comic. "Refill," with the bravura opening line "I feel like the girl at the bar who's been there too long," is close behind. Here, a more subdued Varner is intoxicated in talk with a potential beau ("feel like a conversational lush"). The song works the latent eroticism of its title without getting too vulgar about it, and Varner swoops high and low around the song's insistent fiddle loop and spare percussion. But "Not Tonight" ("I need a little audacity/But it's not in my bones") makes clear that such encounters are rare.

Like no other female R&B singer save maybe Scott, Varner owns her sexuality, which is expressed as an active, essential part of a well-rounded life. But despite telling one lucky object of affection that the pair may need a "sound-proof room," Varner sounds less impressed with her own sexual skill or ability to verbalize it than Scott. Again, more relatable.

Varner knows constant nightlife is a youth rite of passage unless you do it wrong, and her daydream domesticity ("Welcome Home") is utterly reasonable and everything she deserves — it includes a fridge full of good food, "someone to forgive me when I'm so wrong," and "brown-eyed babies and all."

Miguel and Elle Varner will both be in the area later this month, as co-openers for the more conventional Trey Songz, at a December 29th concert at the Landers Center in Southaven.
Grades: Miguel — A-; Elle Varner — A

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