Archives for the month of: February, 2013

Album Review: To Dust, Alice Russell (Tru Thoughts, 2013)

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Alice Russell is underserved. We don’t get enough of her, especially in North America where she is lesser known than her countrywomen, Adele and Amy Winehouse. If we must compare her to other soulful British female vocalists, my vote goes to a voice we knew in the eighties — Alison Moyet. Russell is uncannily similar in style and spirit to Moyet, the powerful vocalist behind Yazoo.

The five year pause since Russell’s last album, Pot of Gold (Six Degrees, 2008), has been worth the wait. To Dust gives us Russell’s voice in a surprising variety of tracks across the album. There are more straight-ahead soul tracks, some electronic influenced arrangements, and hooky pop tunes.

I can’t help but compare this with Jose James’ latest release, No Beginning No End (Blue Note, 2013). That album was focussed on showcasing James’ unique voice. I was expecting something similar for Russell’s current outing. Rather, To Dust offers a varied song selection and the production sometimes takes a front seat. This is not to say James’ album is better. To Dust takes a different approach with the artist, still using her range, but drawing from more genres in the process.

The first single, “Heartbreaker” is a driving and soulful march. It gives Russell an opportunity to show off her power, which she does without overdoing it. “Let Go (Breakdown)” is another catchy tune. This is where the vocals could be more front-and-centre. It works, but if you’ve heard Russell in a more raw production setting (like here), you’d want more vocals.

The rawness and Russell’s control is featured nicely in “I Loved You.” An echoed bass drum, not unlike Yazoo’s minimalist classic, “Winter Kills” from Upstairs at Eric’s (Mute, 1982), invokes more Russell vs. Moyet comparisons. Likewise, “Citizens” is a sparser track with vocals up front. The piano rhythm track gives the track a hip-hop feel, which works nicely with Russell’s treatment.

On the electronic side of the spectrum, “For a While” features synth and a very Prince-like breakdown, which Russell pulls off naturalistically. “Different” is the tranciest track and reminds me of “Driven to Tears” from The Police’s Zenyatta Mondatta (A&M, 1980). “Drinking Song Interlude” hints that Russell could play in the electronic dance space easily but is so short it leaves us wanting more.

This is a strong end-to-end listen that takes you on a journey through soul, pop, and electronica. Russell’s vocals are reason enough to pick up this album. The style mix makes it even more compelling.

Album Review: Sun, Mario Biondi (Columbia, 2013)

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Incognito’s Jean-Paul ‘Bluey’ Maunick produced this album, which no doubt drew coveted collaborators Leon Ware, Omar, and Al Jarreau. Chaka Khan also appears on “Lowdown,” previously released on Incognito’s Transatlantic R.P.M. album (Shanachie, 2010). Happily, the album lives up to the great promise this gaggle of musical legends holds.

I came upon Mario Biondi via his popular 2006 release, Handful of Soul (Schema). Cool jazz numbers like “This is what you are” and “On a clear day” were a perfect introduction to a remarkable jazz singing voice, one with as much personality as Sinatra’s or Armstrong’s.

Maunick’s treatment is noticeable on Sun, giving it more of a jazz-funk and soulful sound than the Cool Jazz sound of Handful of Soul. “Girl Blue” is a feel-good tune with the sweeping horn arrangements and backing vocals you’d expect from a great Incognito record. “Shine on,” “Deep space,” and “What have you done to me” are other uptempo tracks that Biondi attacks with relish and makes his own.

“Catch the sunshine” is a perfect melody for Leon Ware’s style but clashes a little with Biondi’s timber, which is too jarring against Ware’s easiness. This would have been a lovely track for Ware to sing solo. Likewise, Biondi’s voice is almost too powerful for the softly written “There’s no one like you.” Mario Biondi can certainly sing ballads but the arrangements on this track call for a much quieter touch than he can pull off without sounding contrived.

Biondi does, however, channel Barry White adeptly in at least a couple of tracks. “I can read your mind” has a Barry White vibe and Biondi has the voice to pull it off. “La voglia la pazzia l’idea,” sung in his native Italian, has a bossa groove and wonderfully lush strings arranged by long-time Incognito collaborator, Simon Hale. In fact, to disco heads like me, Hale’s arrangements steal the show in more than a few tracks on this album.

“Never stop” featuring Omar is a great tune and sounds like it could be a new hit from Bill Withers. Al Jarreau’s appearance on “Light to the world” is not quintessential Jarreau but it works. There’s very little scatting and the lyrical phrasing is much more relaxed than his vocal gymnastics masterpiece, “Take 5.” Still, it reminds us that Jarreau has a nice natural singing voice.

Although not a cohesive end-to-end listen, Sun has 13 full-length tracks offering lots to choose from for fans of jazz, soul, and the spaces in between.

Album Review: No Beginning No End, Jose James (Blue Note, 2013)

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When vocalist Jose James appeared on the scene some years ago with a guest spot on Jazzanova’s Of All the Things (Verve, 2008) and his solo debut, The Dreamer (Browswood, 2008), it was a matter of time before a massive breakthrough. Not since Maxwell, had we heard a male vocalist with R&B/Soul chops like these. In fact, James’ vocal styling is smoother than Maxwell’s. Almost everything he sings has a lullaby quality. Although this can be tiresome when overdone, No Beginning No End, strikes a nice balance between ballads, James’ greatest strength, and uptempo-yet-soulful tracks.

This is James’ debut on Blue Note Records. His prior release, Blackmagic (2010) also on Browswood, was much more heavily produced, apparently an attempt to break into the urban music mainstream. Although a nice album, I don’t think Blackmagic was the right fit for James. No Beginning No End, on the other hand, is the quintessential Jose James album both he and his fans deserve.

The production on this album is understated, letting James’ vocals speak for themselves. The compositions are more rudimentary, setting this collection up for some instant classics. “Vanguard” is a jazz number with R&B warmth. “Do You Feel” is a bluesy track with hints of Lou Rawls. “Heaven on the Ground” feating Emily King, is a Bossa inspired duet nicely delivered in both the acoustic and fully produced version included on the album.

The opening track, “It’s all over your body,” appears to be an ode to D’Angelo’s Voodoo album (Virgin, 2000). Adept as it is at mimicking D’Angelo’s unique sound from that album, it is an odd opener since I found myself waiting for the Jose James album to start.

No Beginning No End is an apt title for this solid release. Varied song selections, warm but subtle R&B production, and James’ vocals make this an endlessly listenable album, easily left on infinite loop.