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The Way I Am Feels All Wrong

<I>The Way I Am</I> Feels All Wrong

If this is the way Jennifer Knapp is now, can we please go back to the way she was before?

After selling nearly 1 million copies of her first two label releases and avoiding the "sophomore slump" with Lay It Down, her follow-up to Kansas, Knapp releases her third effort on Nov. 20, just in time for the traditional holiday sales rush.

But don't rush out and buy the CD just yet. Despite its title, The Way I Am is quite different than the way Jennifer was on her earlier recordings.

This time out, Jennifer works with big-gun producer Tony McAnany (Madonna, Sinead O'Connor).

Jennifer Knapp CD CoverWarning signs emerge in the first track. The new songs include some heavy orchestration, draining the nuance out of most of the music. The result: The strengths of Jennifer's earlier songs - the strong voice, the incisive lyrics - remain, but are buried under layers of guitars and strings, so much so that listening to The Way I Am can make one long for the subtlety of a Queensryche concept album.

It's an all-too-familiar story: A musician builds a loyal following while preserving her integrity, but in an effort to "develop" the artist, a new label or a new producer takes the artist's sound and adds to it, hoping to expand the artist's audience without alienating the loyal fans.

The transition can be a dangerous road, but sometimes it works. Witness: Shawn Colvin.

Colvin's album, Steady On, caught on with the college crowd 10 years ago (it apparently caught on with Knapp, too, who covered that albums' Diamond in the Rough on Lay It Down). Colvin followed Steady On with Fat City and Cover Girl, cultivating a dedicated fan base.

It wasn't until 1996's A Few Small Repairs that Colvin's musical sound changed notably. That album added more percussion and electronics to spice up Colvin’s usually pared down acoustic arrangements.

A Few Small Repairs sold slowly until the release of Sunny Came Home, the biggest hit of Colvin's career. The song's popularity turned A Few Small Repairs the biggest seller of Colvin's career.

Knapp isn't able to pull off the same transition - not yet, at least - but Colvin's influence remains. Around Me, one of the best songs on The Way I Am, has a lilting melody that resembles Colvin's If I Were Brave. Other highlights include Say Won't You Say, which overcomes an artificial drum track to communicate a longing for God's acceptance. But several songs, including the title track and Come to Me, sound uncharacteristically self-indulgent, or just plain tedious.

Still, no production tricks can completely cloud Knapp's talent as a singer and songwriter. Her earlier releases set a high bar for Knapp's future work, and although this album may disappoint fans of her first two records, those who haven't been exposed to Knapp's earlier music may find The Way I Am more to their liking.