Susan Justice has a backstory worthy of a rags-to-riches film noir. Raised in a strict religious cult with her ten brothers and sisters, she traveled the world busking with her family band -- even though they were not allowed to listen to any music while they were growing up. One day, as the family passed through New York, Justice jumped ship. She started busking in the subways, saved enough money to make an indie CD, and started selling it on the street. After moving indoors to music clubs, she was discovered by Spin Doctors' drummer Aaron Comess, who set her up with a manager and producer/ songwriting partner Toby Gad (Beyoncé, Fergie, Alicia Keys). Gad co-wrote and produced Eat Dirt with a low-key style that emphasizes the singer's warm, honeyed delivery. She occasionally adds a purring tone to a word or phrase that complements Gad's smooth, jazzy folk/pop arrangements. The gently swinging folk of "Hello Goodbye" could be the record's signature tune, with a blend of hope and realism that mirrors the feelings that pervade the album. Justice sings "One eyes smiles while the other one starts to cry" with an aching vulnerability that raises goose bumps. "Paper Planes," a song about a girl's introduction to the mysteries of love and boys, has a classic pop melody that balances heartbreak and hope. Sparse acoustic piano and Justice's subtle vocal lead to a compelling chorus on "I Wonder," a song that asks how much of your soul you have to give up to stay in a relationship with a lover or family. "You Were Meant to Sing" is the most upbeat number a positive, funky R&B groove with a sassy vocal and hopeful message. The title track is the darkest tune, but it's sprinkled with light. "What doesn't kill you, makes you sick," she sings, twisting an old cliché into a startling new image. The arrangement features quiet piano and a vocal from Justice that builds in volume and power as it plays with familiar images of forbidden fruit and family dysfunction to come to a powerful conclusion, marked by a dramatic use of percussion and soaring, gospel-heavy backing vocals. Justice expresses an impressive range of romantic experience here, with many clever turns of phrase that show off her songwriting abilities. She occasionally indulges in overused images that show off her youth, but the strong melodies, simmering vocals, and her deep faith in the possibilities of salvation allow her to transcend her limitations. ~ j. poet, Rovi

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