Elle Varner ‘Perfectly Imperfect' (RCA)
Elle Varner's mother sang backup for Barry White and her father was a session musician and producer in the 1980s, so it computes that a pleasing throwback aesthetic would form the foundation of Varner's debut album, “Perfectly Imperfect.” Varner's sweet and seductive vocal style is steeped in jazz traditions rather than post-Whitney Houston soul flourishes, and as its title suggests, “Perfectly Imperfect” rises above the rest by layering organic delivery and sensibilities into its first-rate material.
This emphasis on real rhythm and blues is addressed in style and substance on the opening track, “Only Wanna Give It to You,” in which Varner sings that she “came before this digital ocean where people only move in digital motion.” Her slight rasp lends truth to the statement: Varner's vocals never sound worked over and there isn't a hint of technical sweetening on the glorious “Refill,” a slow-burning ballad about saying too much, too soon. Producers Andrew “Pop” Wansel and Warren “Oak” Felder throw some startling sound flourishes into the arrangements, including a sawing fiddle sound on “Refill” and the cracking snares and guitars on “Sound Proof Room.” But Felder and Wansel are strictly in the business of building a great sound for Varner, who shows off her soaring vocal mastery on the neo-soul gorgeousness of “I Don't Care.”
Varner could be the real thing, a singer who can bridge the gap between the sweet soul of the past and the tech-enabled pop of modern chart singles. “Oh What a Night” is a party banger about too much tequila and smeared makeup that succeeds because of the singer's funny, self-deprecating delivery — what Varner does through nuance cannot be achieved through Auto-Tune. For emphasis, she goes almost entirely acoustic on the clever penultimate track “Damn Good Friends,” showing that “Perfectly Imperfect” is all the better for leaving in all of Varner's distinctly human qualities.
— George Lang