There's an old adage in the music business that goes something like this: You have a lifetime to make your first album, and six months to make your second. But of course, if you're an "American Idol" contestant, and especially if you're an "Idol" winner, the opposite is true: Just five months after Kris Allen won "Idol" Season 8, his self-titled post-"Idol" debut was out in time for the holiday shopping rush. However, Kris waited two and a half years to follow up that effort with his new album, Thank You Camellia. And now, almost three years to the date of his "Idol" victory, he reenters a fickle marketplace already crowded with Idols (Camellia comes out the day before a new "AI" champ is named, in fact) and yet another John Mayer record.
But you know what? Thank You Camellia was well worth the wait. I wholeheartedly thank Kris, and the powers-that-be, for taking their time with one--and while I'm at it, I want to thank this Camellia chick, too.
Actually, Camellia is not a person, but Kris's home-away-from-home in Los Angeles, the city where much of the Arkansas troubadour's new album was recorded. And it's a fitting album title, because there's a homespun, cozy quality to the entire disc, from its sweet opening track "Better With You," which begins with the hushed sound of Kris tip-toeing up to his piano bench, taking a seat, and exhaling before starting to play; to its acoustic companion EP (which features the knee-slapping rockabilly throwdown "Shut That Door," otherwise known to diehard fans as "The BBQ Song"); to even the CD art (a sun-dappled shot of a "Camellia Ave." street sign on the back, a precious pose by Kris's own pet French bulldog Zorro on the front, and even three booklet pages dedicated to thanking fans by name). The sterility that unfortunately plagues so many produced-by-committee "Idol" albums is nowhere to be heard on the warm and earthy Camellia, thankfully, and so it is an album that simply draws the listener right in. It's the ideal vibe for the type of unassuming Idol who likes to play impromptu busking concerts on the beach and has never erected any sort of wall between himself and his fans, and for a "guy-next-door" who seems practically unchanged since the day he first humbly shuffled into the "Idol" audition room in his newsboy cap and plaid button-down.
That doesn't mean Kris hasn't evolved during the past three years; his songwriting skills have clearly grown more sophisticated, and he has co-penning credit on every catchy Camellia track, totally holding his own alongside prestigious writing partners like Jason Reeves (Colbie Caillat, Katharine McPhee's "Terrified"), Tim Pagnotta (Sugarcult, Neon Trees' "Animal"), and Toby Gad (Fergie's "Big Girls Don't Cry," Beyonce's "If I Were A Boy"). The result? Jaunty, summer-convertible-cruising anthems, like the aforementioned finger-snapper "Better With You," the absolutely charming "My Weakness" (which joins Foster The People's "Pumped Up Kicks," Peter Bjorn & John's "Young Folks," and Guns N' Roses' "Patience" on my list of favorite whistling songs), the fun and funky "Rooftops" (the jam that Jason Mraz probably wishes he'd written), and an adorable duet with California songstress Meiko, "Loves Me Not," that's sort of a like a kinder, gentler, sunnier spin on Gotye and Kimbra's "Somebody That I Used To Know."
But it's not all kick-off-your-flip-flops summer songs on Camellia. There's some serious stuff on the disc as well, much of it unflinchingly chronicling the ups and down of love, and seemingly/possibly inspired by Kris's real-life relationship with his high school sweetheart-turned-wife, Katy Allen. Heart-sleeved romantic odes like "Rooftops," "Blindfolded," and "You Got A Way" are swoon-worthy declarations of adoration that will probably make Katy one of the most envied women in America, but it's Camellia's gloomier tracks that are more interesting, and in some ways more relatable. In the propulsive and sinister alt-rocker "Monster," Kris warns a trusting woman about his secret dark side, and despite usually being known as one of the nicest dudes on the planet, he is shockingly convincing. In the somber, waltz-tempo ballad "Leave You Alone" (which, incidentally, with the addition of a little steel guitar could definitely be a country-crossover hit), he gives up and walks away from a lovers' spat. And in the lilting "Teach Me How Love Goes" and brooding "Out Alive," he just flat-out admits that he, like the rest of us, is still trying to figure out this whole love thing. The lyrics are plain-spoken, refreshingly unflowery, and they cut right to the heart of the matter--and right to the listener's heart, too. I can almost imagine sheepish, in-the-doghouse boyfriends compiling playlists of these tracks for their angry girlfriends after a quarrel. And I bet that tactic would actually work. Come on, what girl could resist?
For all its analog organic grooviness, there's one bonus track on Thank You Camellia that gets into a whole sort of other groove: the Maison & Dragen remix of lead single "The Vision Of Love," a song that was already pretty darn anthemic as it was, but is surprisingly reimagined as a Hi-NRG club jam. It almost sounds like something that would be recorded by a certain other contestant who placed second to Kris on "Idol," and yet, it somehow works and still sounds like Kris Allen. The song is just a testament to the man's artistic growth since his 2009 "Idol" run--even though, in the best possible way, he really hasn't changed one bit.