Alana Davis surrenders happily to independence

"The music is more alive now be-cause there is no for-mula." Davis says. "It's who I am: happy, free."

Music

In Concert / CDs

April 28, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

About 10 years ago, mainstream critics buzzed about Alana Davis, who was supposed to be the next big thing in pop. The soulful, folk-influenced singer-guitarist wrote her own music, but she broke into the Top 40 with a memorable cover of "32 Flavors" by fellow folkie Ani DiFranco. Time magazine voted her 1998 debut, Blame It on Me, one of the year's best albums. Entertainment Weekly called Davis the "most promising newcomer of 1998." She also played Lilith Fair that year. But the momentum quickly fizzled. Her 2001 sophomore effort was Fortune Cookies. Ambitious but uneven, the album came and went. Davis' label at the time, Elektra, wanted her to move in a more urban direction, compete with the likes of Brandy and Monica. But the creamy-skinned beauty wasn't having it, so she demanded to be released from her contract. By early 2002, the native New Yorker was without a label deal and on her own. She packed up and moved to Los Angeles in search of new inspiration.

"I had to do some living," says Davis, calling from Los Angeles. The artist is starting a national tour to promote her new album, the refreshingly solid Surrender Dorothy. "You have to live to write, though."

There's a sunny lilt in Davis' slightly husky voice. She sure sounds happy.

"The music is more alive now because there is no formula," she says. "It's who I am: happy, free, man."

Surrender Dorothy should have been the proper follow up to Davis' promising debut. Assured and cohesive, the album is the first release on the singer's label, Tigress Records, distributed by Telarc. Save for two covers, Davis wrote every song, produced and arranged the music. The overall sound this time is anchored in groove-heavy rock with subtle R&B flourishes here and there. The folk touches are all but gone. Something like a new- millennium Phoebe Snow, Davis never oversells a song with her dusky, charged vocals.

As for the album title, she says, "I'm a Wizard of Oz fan. It really has to do with the phase I'm in that deals with as much truth and as much reality as possible. You wanna feel that you can be yourself. In terms of the title, it's a matter of surrendering the fear and just being; keep things moving."

The lyrical content centers mostly on finding oneself, shaking off delusions of love and the remnants of unhealthy relationships. The raw, jam-session-style music gives the album a propulsive feel. The lyrics are never too sentimental or self-absorbed. The songs are tuneful, distinctive.

"It took a while to figure out how I would make the record," says Davis, who doesn't divulge her age. "I rendezvoused with a few labels. But I figured I could market my record the same way." The artist grew up in Greenwich Village in New York, the daughter of a white jazz-singing mother and a black jazz-piano-playing father.

On her Web site she says, "I'm an individual, which makes me a part of both cultures and neither at the same time. I figure I exist as an eraser for the lines that are drawn between the races."

With her frizzy hair, thick lips and bleached-almond complexion, Davis was an outcast at her Upper East Side high school. So she found solace in poetry and music. Back then, and the same is true today, her musical tastes were a mixed bag. She loved the bop her parents preferred, but Davis also embraced Bob Marley, Joni Mitchell, DiFranco, Whodini. At 18, she learned to play the guitar and eventually turned her poems into songs. A demo found its way to Elektra Records in 1997.

Although it has taken nearly a decade, Davis has finally delivered on the promise of her much-heralded debut with Surrender Dorothy.

On the supporting tour, the artist plans to take the stage with just her guitar and that rich voice.

"It makes me more vulnerable, I think, more open," she says. "The future looks great, man. Let it go."

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