Bathe Me in Candlelight has all the earmarks, pro and con, of a self-produced debut outing--most notably, an eagerness to please by touching on as many different styles as time permits without ever settling on one.
LA-based songstress Gwen Howard showcases several admirable traits in this 2004 release. She's put together a song list emphasizing lesser-known material. Her solid backing band includes guitarist Phil Upchurch, who long ago mastered the jazz, soul and blues genres Howard aspires to here. The singer acquits herself nicely on the swingers and bluesier tunes here. Howard's vocal style seems less varied than the rest of the disc. She favors her upper range which, while pretty enough, wears thin over he course of the disc. Her lower timbre needs to be shown off more, as on "There Was a Moment," the CD's highlight, where she mixes it up by getting down and bluesy in a duet with Lee Duncan. Duncan, by the way, warbles uncannily like the late R&B/jazzman O.C. Smith, whom Howard claims as a mentor.
With this CD Howard tries to keep her foot in both the jazz and soul worlds. On standards like "Lullaby of the Leaves" and "Sweet Pumpkin" (which is less of a standard but deserves better), she lays down a comfortable swing. And Howard perks up "Christopher Columbus," best known in a Fats Waller version, with more sass than Andy Razaf's dated lyrics deserve. On the more modern side, she more than does justice to "If You Were Mine," with words by another up-and-coming singer, Rene Marie.
Howard's more R&B-oriented song choices don't fare as well simply because they're not as strong. The title cut and "The Lights Are On," for example, are well-arranged but don't transport us to the places that good soul music should. Similarly the Latin-tinged pieces such as "Sally's Samba" and "My Child" provide contrast and show versatility but ultimately don't hold up well.
Overall, Bathe Me in Candlelight does serve as a solid introduction to a singer with potential. More vocal versatility and stronger material should serve Gwen Howard will in the future.