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.

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