In the old days, singers used to get discovered by record-label scouts while singing absent-mindedly at gas stations. Today, they're YouTube stars, covering hit songs, racking up tens of millions of views, marketing themselves via Facebook and Twitter, until powerful people discover them and turn them into pop stars. Conor Maynard's powerful people were R&B singer Ne-Yo and the Neptunes' Pharrell Williams; they help the 19-year-old British singer channel his proto-Justin Bieber tendencies into pop copies of Katy Perry ("Animal"), Rihanna ("Vegas Girl") and Justin Timberlake ("Pictures").
In addition to being small, cute and inoffensive, Maynard has a strong, adaptable voice. For his debut album "Contrast" (Capitol), he works with a variety of top producers, songwriters and guest stars, and manages to sound like them (and others). On "Pictures," written by rising R&B star Frank Ocean, Maynard elevates from a sleepy storytelling tone to a falsetto so pristine it's almost shocking; on "Lift Off," his vocals match the playful syncopation of Pharrell's skittery beats; on the jumpy sure hit "Vegas Girl," he's so enamored of RiRi that he drops her name in the song and copies her distinctive "eh... eh... eh" mannerisms.
The main problem with "Contrast" is that Maynard so obviously surrenders himself to the heavy hitters making his album that he leaves no space to be himself. He's a talented mimic, and seems likely to plunge into the teen-pop demographic that props up pop stars such as Bieber, One Direction and The Wanted. But his career will only advance from here if he follows his talent down Timberlake Lane rather than Jonas Boulevard.
BOTTOM LINE New British pop singer settles for mimicry on catchy debut