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LABEL: Reunion Records
SPECIAL EFFECT(S): Daily Planet lead singer/songwriter Jesse Butterworth co-writes four of the 10 songs on this album.
PRODUCER(S): Brown Bannister (Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, Avalon)

Without all the summer's American Idol hysteria, it would've been a lot easier to push play on the new Joy Williams disc. After all, how much pre-fab Top 40 pop fare can one person reasonably take?

But, after spending some quality time with By Surprise, Williams' sophomore effort, I was pleasantly surprised, indeed. A big step forward from her self-titled debut, By Surprise attempts to move beyond the dance-pop sound that has saturated mainstream and, subsequently, Christian music in favor of a more organic, live sound. Sonically thanks in no small part to the wizardry of producer Brown Bannister it's a groove garden of funky rhythms, layered guitars and rolling percussion.

More impressive than the sonic shift, though, is the breadth of vocal ability. Sure, she's always had a booming, raise-the-roof set of pipes, but so do most soloists with a record deal. By Surprise confirms that she has more than that. She's emerging from the wonder years and beginning to establish a vocal style of her own.

Beyond that, this is a strong collection of songs, many of which display Williams' potential as a songwriter. With such a stellar team as Regie Hamm, Rob Graves, Jason McArthur and David Mullen, you can expect a good crop of radio-friendly songs, if not more. And Jesse Butterworth of Daily Planet adds a twist of originality to just about everything he touches.

So the next time I see Idol's Kelly Clarkson, I'll wish her well and hope that by the time she releases her second album, she'll have come as far as this new kid has.

Melissa Riddle