A decade or so ago, Joss Stone was a novelty of sorts. A young British woman with a deep knowledge of classic soul, she debuted with an album of somewhat obscure ’60s and ’70s R&B covers, recorded with the assistance and blessing of the likes of Latimore, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, Little Beaver and Betty Wright.She (at least partially) opened the door for the commercial success of the Amy Winehouses and Adeles of the world.
The album revealed a voice that was impressive, but she sounded more like a kid playing grown-up than she did someone who could bring true life experience and soul to these songs. The four albums she’s released since have been wildly inconsistent. Her best album was the closest thing to a contemporary R&B album she’s ever released (the Raphael Saadiq-assisted Introducing Joss Stone.) Since then, she’s released a muddled, overlong “angry at my label” album (Colour Me Free) and a near-unlistenable, bluesy rock project with Dave Stewart (LP1.) Now, Joss is back to square one, covering soul classics from the ’60s and ’70s on The Soul Sessions, Vol. 2.
Time (and age) have conspired to turn Joss into a more intuitive vocalist, and I’m glad she no longer feels the need to set her vocal phaser on stun anymore. It always leads to a more pleasurable listening experience when the singer isn’t screaming at you. Not to say she doesn’t belt anymore: her version of The Dells’ “The Love We Had (Stays On My Mind)” stops just short of being squawky. She does better with the seductive “Pillow Talk,” and totally kills with a playful rendition of Labi Siffre’s “I Got The…” which some of you may know as the song that’s provided the musical bed for several songs released by associates of Dr. Dre, including Eminem’s “My Name Is.”
In Joss’s corner, the arrangements are impeccable. She records with a full band, including Ernie Isley-member of The Isley Brothers’ classic 3+3 lineup, disciple of Jimi Hendrix and quite possibly the most underrated guitar player of all time. If you’re a fan of soul music, you’ll at least dig the instrumentals.
Not in Joss’s corner? The fact that The Soul Sessions Vol. 2 is a covers album. Just by the natural order of things, albums of remakes are almost always bound to be a letdown. You’re dealing with classics-songs that are immediately identifiable (in many cases.) If you’re covering these songs, you essentially have two options: either you’re completely faithful to the original or you get experimental and re-contextualize the song. If you choose option 1, you’re essentially performing karaoke with a big budget. If you choose option 2, you run the very high risk of embarrassing yourself. Joss chooses option 1 for most of this album, and although her performances are good, and I certainly don’t regret my purchase of the album, it’s not an essential album. Best case scenario is that I pull it out every now and then for a pleasant listening experience. Worst case scenario is that I use it as a guide to purchase a few more soul classics and hope that Joss’s vocal maturity will make for a solid album the next time she goes into the studio to record original music.