Who is Kris Allen? We know he’s the winner of season eight of “American Idol,” but the glorified karaoke contest seldom leaves the viewer with the true sense of an artist’s direction.
 
It turns out Allen is pretty much what he presented himself to be on the television show—a straight-down-the-middle pop singer. Hear his new album, "Kris Allen," here.

As anyone who’s seen the “American Idol”  knows, Allen has a pleasing and strong, if somewhat non-distinctive, voice—sometimes he sounds like Jason Mraz, other times Adam Levine. There’s a reason why he won “American Idol”—Allen hits all the right notes without ever being remotely polarizing--unlike "AI" runner up Adam Lambert, whose album drops next week.  If you don’t love him, you certainly don’t hate him-- you probably feel indifferent about him. Like most mainstream artists, there’s nothing edgy or distinctive enough about him to find disagreeable.
 
Having said that, it would have been perfectly understandable if Allen had picked a peck of pop songs that were bland or simply exalted his new-found pop star status; instead, to his credit, he co-wrote nine of the 13 songs and aims thematically at a fairly weighty look at romantic disenchantment and loss.
 
On “Kris Allen,” Allen works with some of the top writers and producers, but also with a number of well-known singer/songwriters such as Train’s Pat Monahan, the Fray’s Joe King and Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman. The result is a stronger set of songs than if he’d penned the whole effort himself, but the downside is that with so many hands in the mix—and high profile, recognizable ones at that—it’s a little hard to find where Allen’s vision for himself begins and where his collaborators’ ends.
 
His voice is still a fairly pliable, malleable one and while the album is an altogether strong effort, in today’s “strike-while-the-iron-is-hot” world, “Kris Allen” may not be a bold enough statement to entice people to come back for a second helping.
 
 Allen’s strengths shine through on lead single, “Live Like We’re Dying,” even though that song hasn’t reacted well at radio, and “Alright With Me,” a Buddy-Holly-like slice of acoustic guitar driven pop that’s jangly in all the right places. Co-written with the Fray’s King, it’s one of the album’s few unabashedly up-tempo tunes and one of its absolute best.  Similarly, on the slightly bluesy “Is it Over,” Allen begs a lover to turn around. But he seems most at home on “Red Guitar,” which Allen wrote before the whole “American Idol” adventure started. It’s a sweet, gentle comparison of his lover to a red guitar that “may not have all its strings, but she strums it beautifully.”
 
There are few turgid, piano ballads (“Bring It Back” and “Lifetime”)  that sound remarkably like the Fray (and are, surprisingly, not the ones that King co-wrote) that drag the midtempo-heavy  CD down. A little judicious editing would have made for a stronger overall set; although we applaud the decision to include Allen’s reinvention of Kanye West’s “Heartless,” which he performed toward the end of the “AI” season, and to drop his “AI” coronation song, “No Boundaries.”
 
The biggest challenge facing Allen going forward is to find his own voice. He’s shown he can play very well with others. Let’s see how he does when left to his own devices.