In the ten years that American Idol has been a pop culture staple, there are only a few names that have become household ones (Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood), more that you sort of know (Kris Allen, David Archuleta), and the bulk of them that you can’t recall at all.
Then there’s season 2’s Kimberly Caldwell, the feisty lady who, alongside Justin Guarini, made a respectable post-Idol career for herself as the show’s correspondent for TV Guide Channel . She’d probably fall into that “sort of know” category. But with all the trying labor—almost a decade in the making—that has gone into launching herself as a full-fledged musician, she deserves to move somewhere higher up on that pyramid. It’s not about the lengthy amount of time it has taken to release her debut album, Without Regret. It’s about the gifts she showcases on it—a soulfully sexy voice that bares passion and heart and its natural but quality fit in songs that range from upbeat dance hits to rock ballads.
Leadoff single “Desperate Girls and Stupid Boys” is catchy, poppy, and a radio-friendly tune for Caldwell, and a positive experimental risk. However, the earlier debut single, “Mess of You,” is more descriptive of the uniform vibe of Without Regret: More organic and peers into the more visceral side of love. Caldwell amps up the drama on tunes like “Heart Like Mine,” lamenting the destruction of a relationship, but later asserts “My middle finger’s in the air to let you know I don’t care.” She plays it off more devastatingly on “Taking Back My Life,” which goes soft in both vocal and instrumental tone during the verses and soars emotionally as she tries to express that she’ll bounce back.
But it’s not all tragedy and shattered hearts: Caldwell does play around with some higher-tempo, rocksteady, girl-powered numbers. “Going Going Gone” has Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” potential with its post-breakup independent woman perspective, addictive hooks, and heaviness on guitar and drums. “Hotter Without You” is similar in theme, but stands out with its cool 80s-pop-rock sound.
Caldwell’s up-tempos are good as part of demonstrating her capabilities but as sad as the lyrics of her slower and more wrenching tracks are, those are the ones where she truly shines. Not only does she have the opportunity to fully showcase her voice and unleash her excellent range, but she owns a rawness that opens up to audience connection. The album’s closer, “Human After All,” is demonstrative of all of these described gifts. An almost-pure acoustic guitar mid-tempo, it’s beautifully tarnished by the sense of loneliness in Caldwell’s voice. With a writing credit to her name on this one, the piece is a true culmination of all that the songstress is unbeatable in in her own right.
There’s not really anything that Ms. Caldwell should regret about making this album, and for listeners to have about checking it out. Caldwell has truly come into her own as a pop artist that travels between many musical influences, but ultimately solidifies her artist status with her unparalleled vocal prowess, deep lyrics, and inexplicable skill to convey them. Without Regret is a great first full-length effort, and marks a promising beginning for a deserving star on the rise.
KAREN RECOMMENDS: “If You’re Gonna Fall” – One of the most distinctive tracks with its old-school smooth R&B flavor, it’s proof that Caldwell’s chops work with practically any style of music.