Pot of Gold
First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2009, Volume 16, #2
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Wed February 18, 2009, 06:30 AM CST
The British have always loved American R&B. In the same way that John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers reflected the raunchier side of African-American urban music back to white audiences in the 1960s, contemporary English artists from Simply Red to Massive Attack to Amy Winehouse have made careers out of reinterpreting the sound of old Stax and Motown albums. While the importance of performers like Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Etta James can’t be underestimated, one has to wonder about the value of albums like Pot of Gold, the latest effort by Alice Russell, on which she seems to do little more than pay homage to the music of an era that has long since passed.
For the record, Russell is a dynamic singer who has been blessed with a powerful voice and an impressive range. Her pipes aren’t the problem. It’s more a question about how and where they are directed. For years, Russell has impressed listeners with her performances with Massive Attack, The Next Men, and Quantic. On these endeavors, she wails like a house on fire, and she has shown — particularly with Quantic — that she has the emotional range to interpret a song like very few others can. Yet, on Pot of Gold, her third solo effort, she seems content simply to belt out her material without giving any thought to how to make it her own.
Almost every track on Pot of Gold blatantly appropriates old R&B riffs, and as a result, the album feels like a meticulous recreation of the past. Snatches of Marvin Gaye’s melodies intermingle with horn lines plucked from Otis Redding’s canon, over the top of which glide vocal harmonies drawn straight from The Supremes. While it is difficult to fault Russell for her influences, Pot of Gold would have been much more interesting if she had used the material of her heroes as a starting point rather than a blueprint. It is frustrating to listen to the album because, although the elements for a great set of songs are present, the end results ultimately are derivative and bland.
Pot of Gold should have been a great record. After all, Russell has a better voice than Winehouse — which is saying a lot. Nevertheless, Russell also lacks the diminutive singer’s charisma and interpretive power. Where Winehouse inhabits her material, Russell simply delivers hers. She has both power and range, but she sings without any nuance or inferred emotion. With Russell what you hear is what you get, and there is no subtext or subtlety to her performance.
The main problems with Pot of Gold, then, are the reverence Russell has toward her source material and the orthodoxy of her approach. Soul music is about joy and pain as well as the million small victories and defeats of everyday life. The best songs — no matter how slickly they are recorded — capture the intensity of human experience in all of its ecstasy and sorrow. Unfortunately, Pot of Gold has been recorded with such care and precision that each of its tracks ironically sounds bloodless and flat.
It is obvious that Russell and her talented band adore the music of a bygone era. In fact, the photos that are spread across Pot of Gold’s insert wouldn’t be out of place on a mid-’60s, LP jacket from a Philly soul record. To reach her considerable potential, however, Russell ought to go back and listen to her albums with Quantic and Massive Attack to get a better understanding of why they sound so good. On these efforts, R&B is simply a point of reference, and Russell’s voice serves as an anchor, while the melodies and rhythms simultaneously explore some very exciting musical territory. On Pot of Gold, Russell’s performances are trite and cold due to her adherence to the constructs of vintage songs. She needs to treat her music like an entity that lives and breathes instead of an artifact from antiquity that is easily broken through tampering. The music can take it, and she shouldn’t be afraid to shake up the formula.
In the end, Russell has a rare gift that she needs to exploit. Otherwise, there is no reason at all to listen to her sing. She is a great vocalist, but if she can’t find anything new to say, her prospective fans’ time would be better spent exploring the catalogues of Aretha Franklin and Etta James. ½
Of Further Interest...
Pot of Gold is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2009 The Music Box