Two albums ago, in 2007, Joss Stone titled an album Introducing Joss Stone. It was her third record. Two albums later, it’s LP1, another album title (this time her fifth) that implies reinvention. A shame, then, that neither that album or this one actually follow through on their promise of revitalization. Miss Stone famously dumped her raspy, ferociously soulful vocals on the listening public in 2003 by way of her exemplary Soul Sessions record, a debut of surprisingly from-the-vault soul songs, reworked by a demure-looking, white, and British 16-year-old. The music superseded the image, and Joss has spent the rest of her career trying to catch lightning in a bottle, applying her powerful pipes to startlingly unmemorable songs. LP1, regrettably, is no exception.
Truths about Joss Stone: 1. When she’s in the zone, she can sing like a hellcat, the possessed specter of Janis Joplin guiding her into a soul frenzy. 2. She knows that she can sing like a hellcat, and exploits that, Aguilera-style, to increasingly melismatic effect. 3. She seems to know when to turn up the intensity, but often, unfortunately (unlike either Augilera or whatever songwriters are on Xtina’s payroll) can’t nail the art of crafting solid songs, resulting in simple skeletons on which to hang some soul-sangin’ bluster. She sounds fine on LP1 – she always sounds fine – but there’s woefully little to actively enjoy. It’s easy to picture Joss Stone concerts attended by buttoned-up yuppies, tapping their toe to the rhythm occasionally, murmuring “why yes, that was an impressive vocal run.”
If soul music lies entirely in the vocal approach, as some have surmised, how do you explain this? How do you explain frenzied, passionate vocals that add up to precisely nothing? Doesn’t that make Bono and Eddie Vedder and Bruce Springsteen all soul singers? For that matter, LP1 often traffics in the bluesy rock of Melissa Etheridge albums – Stone even works herself into such a vocal tizzy so often that she does that thing where Melissa grasps for a note that she can’t quite reach and rasps out at the top. This record would be a Melissa Etheridge album if the songs were memorable.
Joss has her moments, mind you. “Karma” cashes in on the ever-fashionable “spurned woman revenge fantasy” subgenre nicely, derisively dismissing her man as a bitch, and whirling herself into a grandly melodramatic, impressively snarling vocal whirlwind near the end; and then there’s “Cry Myself to Sleep”, a ballad decorated with gorgeous acoustics and a broken, (comparatively) subdued vocal melody, unmarred by Stone’s unraveled vocals until the very end, when it feels earned, and appropriately built towards. Unfortunately, the rest is pretty by-the-numbers: Joss’ tendency to turn each syllable into five makes it impossible for the brain to latch onto a melody, and the instrumentals, while tasteful, never approximate authenticity. “Landlord”, a song about a woman wanting to shag, well, three guesses who, is acoustic 12-bar blues and Joss’s voice and nothing more, but it feels like nothing more than an exercise, a glorified pastiche.
Joss Stone’s vocal prowess is not to be underestimated; handed a good song, she can work wonders with it. Witness the entire Soul Sessions album, or even her “Under Pressure” cover from that Queen tribute album a few years back. An exemplary singer once again falls prey to snoozer songs (say hey to the guy from Train for me, Joss); this is a collection of tales full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.