The boundary between imitation and inspiration is one frequently trampled in pop music.
Certainly, throughout British singer-songwriter Ella Henderson’s debut, Chapter One, it’s possible to hear influences like Adele, Florence Welch or Sia reverberating in the 18-year-old’s vocal inflections and stylistic choices.
But what keeps Henderson’s first album from feeling like a cynical march through her iTunes library is her engaging personality.
There’s an ease and palpable hunger, particularly when Henderson tears into Chapter One’s bigger moments, that marks her as someone just finding her footing.
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A germ of something interesting is there — Henderson isn’t emerging fully formed, despite a sixth-place finish on the British X Factor in 2012 — and it’s enough to get past some of the more derivative moments. (That Henderson is largely unknown to American audiences may also work in her favor.)
Sensibly, her best moment is the first thing heard on Chapter One: the soaring single Ghost. Co-written by radio Midas Ryan Tedder, it’s custom-built for heavy rotation, full of thundering drums, Henderson’s R&B-inflected vocals and a chorus splitting the difference between gospel and pop euphoria.
Elsewhere, Henderson — who, it’s worth noting, co-wrote all 11 tracks here — easily moves between the flush of all-consuming love (Empire), dismissing a self-absorbed paramour (Mirror Man) or acknowledging the challenges inherent in relationships (Hard Work).
The music often feels familiar — nowhere moreso than Yours, as close as Henderson comes to outright aping Adele — but not to the point of distraction. For reasons I’ll never understand, the Brits excel at recycling the well-known in a way Americans have never quite mastered.
Henderson sports a muscular soprano, not unlike her fellow X Factor alum Leona Lewis, and is careful, throughout Chapter One, to provide plenty of variety. (Unlike, say, an Ariana Grande, whose idea of range is either a whisper or a roar.)
But will we hear from Henderson again beyond this initial, solidly entertaining effort?
British vocalists of either gender tend to get a big push when making their debuts, but it’s all down to luck and the ever-fickle American audiences whether they get a second chance.
Particularly in a year where Adele is rumored to be releasing her much-anticipated third studio album and Florence and the Machine reportedly have a new LP in the offing, this unceremonious arrival in the dead of winter may be the best Ella Henderson can hope for.
Pop music may be built upon shamelessly copying others, but no one ever said it was fair.
Preston Jones, 817-390-7713
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