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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: Look Around the Corner, Quantic and Alice Russell (with Combo Barbaro), April 2012

This pairing should excite those of us who know each of these artists for their work apart. Quantic, a.k.a. Will Holland, has a prolific and eclectic career so far. His delving into latin sounds has been done adeptly and avoided the pitfalls of others who try to ape the sound without understanding its roots. Before that, his release in the soul revival arena, I’m Thankful (Tru Thoughts, 2006), re-introduced us to the signature voice of Spanky Wilson and her take-no-prisoners version of “Don’t joke with a hungry man.”

Alice Russell’s Pot of Gold album (Six Degrees, 2008) proved she was a UK vocalist to be celebrated in the same light as Amy Winehouse and Adele. Alas, she is still largely unknown to North American audiences. Her solid tone and power remind me of Alison Moyet’s performance on Yazoo’s classic LP, Upstairs at Erics (Mute, 1982).

Look Around the Corner is not the first meeting of these two but it is the first featuring Holland’s band of Central American musicians, Combo Barbaro.

Where this album works best is where Russell and the Combo are allowed to do their thing in the most classic sense. That is, let Alice sing. Let the Combo play. And we have magic. Mess with that formula, and we have mush electronica.

“Magdalena” and “I’ll Keep My Light in My Window” are perfect for Russell. She wails on them in her inimitable way. Quantic’s production is reserved here and Russell soars above it.

“Una Tarde en Mariquita” is a nice latin tune with a straight-ahead performance by the band. Again, the production takes a back seat. The musicianship is sharp enough to carry the tune.

“I’d Cry” is a charming cha cha number with graceful violin accompaniment. It is a tad overproduced and leaves me wanting a more raw version. A short acoustic version is included toward the end of the album sans the violin.

There are ‘filler’ tracks here that we could all do without. But these are minor and seem to be de rigueur for Electronic releases these days. Still, for the more substantial tracks where Alice sings and the band plays, this is a fine collection and a welcome reunion. What’s more, unless there’s an Alice Russell LP in the near future, this will be our fill of her for the time being.