When Serena Ryder opened for Melissa Etheridge in Toronto in spring 2011, the pair held an a cappella sing-off on stage. Although no champion was declared, it was clear that Ryder had won over the crowd. Freed of her customary folked-up arrangements, the 28-year-old’s five-octave voice sounded both turbo-charged and translucent.
Fortunately, Harmony moves further away from the mangled, mumsy acoustic guitar trappings of Ryder’s last disc, 2008’s Is It O.K., pushing the Torontonian into diva-centric territory that suits her. Credit should be given to the production team—producers Jerrod Bettis (Better Than Ezra) and Jon Levine (Nelly Furtado), and mixer Joe Zook (Katy Perry)—as most of Harmony’s torch-driven sound is delicately refined.
On “For You,” which samples Nina Simone’s “I Put a Spell on You,” Ryder’s voice sounds like it was born to exist alongside diamond-cut strings, piano, and violin. Other tracks provide the peaks and valleys her vocals deserve: You can hear her punctuate notes properly and take breaths when needed. The disc also showcases Ryder’s superpower: she can effortlessly channel many of the leading ladies of ’60s, ’70s and ’80s pop. Harmony’s standout Shirley Bassey-ish moment, “Fall,” features the most lavish chanteusery of Ryder’s career, while “Heavy Love” tips its hat to The Supremes and The Spinners with a respect that would make Aretha cry.
Harmony isn’t free of missteps, though, and halfway through, Ryder veers into one-dimensional honky-tonk. The worst examples of this are the hard-to-forgive, easy-to-forget first single, “Stompa,” the hokey “Mary Go Round,” and the fiddleshtick-y ballad “Please Baby Please”—all unnecessary attempts to modernize Ryder’s past repertoire that mar what should have been a full-on musical makeover.
Playlist picks “Heavy Love,” “For You,” “Baby Come Back,” “Fall”