[25 July 2011]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Oh boy, Joss Stone is angry.
That should really come as no surprise to her fans. From the wise-beyond-her-years debut, 2003’s The Soul Sessions, to the overt jab at her now-former record label, EMI, Colour Me Free, the 24-year-old songstress has always been sure to wear her emotions on her English sleeve. It’s become expected of her to offer emotionally charged, oftentimes-raw performances on her albums, albums that are typically filled with a modern day mix of inspiring soul and rhythm & blues, mind you.
But this time around, on LP1, the first release on her Stone’d Records imprint, Stone is missing the key element of why she has been so lauded over the course of her increasingly mature career: A groove. In fact, her latest release lacks so much of a groove, it would be safe to say the singer has almost completely abandoned her soulful roots altogether. Forget Aretha Franklin, Etta James or Dusty Springfield. With LP1, Joss Stone is trying her best to channel Melissa Etheridge, Sass Jordan, or even… gulp… Kelly Clarkson.
The result is disappointing. It’s low-rent. It’s unexpected. And most of all, it seems like something Joss Stone was previously above. Taking a turn toward rock music wasn’t a turn she needed to take. An acoustic guitar and bland rhythms simply won’t do when you once recorded the powerful kiss off “You Had Me” or the enormously sexy “Put Your Hands on Me”. And pop-rock hooks seem like child’s play when compared to the infectious bounce of “Tell Me ‘Bout It” or the Steely Dan meets Earth, Wind & Fire soul of “Incredible” or “You Got the Love”.
Still, Stone is determined to veer away from her R&B roots on LP1, fans and critics be damned. The biggest misstep here is “Newborn”, the album’s first track that crescendos in and out of faux pop-rock. The fact that she traded in her soul shoes for a pair of faded, ripped blue jeans is prevalent from this beginning generic number. As if the “Everybody walk hand in hand / Get hold of your leg, push together / Everybody get over / You turned up too late / That trick’s over” chorus isn’t pedestrian enough, the inherent one-hit-wonder feel of such a track is something new for the singer. It’s that feeling of commonality—that feeling that escapes originality or imagination—that plasters a brown spot on not only this song, but the entire album.
“Last One to Know” and “Landlord” are also massive letdowns. Both see Stone do something she’s not accustomed to doing: Fail. While it’s clear both tracks are attempts at being emotional (more so during the former) and clever (more so during the latter), they both seem to be missing that intangible element that the singer so effortlessly displayed on her first four albums. Both tracks feel forced for different reasons—“Last One to Know” because of the insistence upon coming up with a rock anthem based around the notion that such a lover scorned could never imagine being in love again, and “Landlord” because of the weak metaphor that showcases a seemingly battered lover who “doesn’t want to be someone else’s landlord anymore”. They are low points in Stone’s career.
Naturally, the album’s best moments come when the songwriter allows a hint of R&B into her performances, however few and far between those moments may appear. “Karma” is the most soulful Stone gets on the record with its Stevie Wonder-like electronic keyboard and hoppy drum pattern. As she yells the “I should have been a little bit stronger / I should have been a little bit harder / I should have been a little bit tougher / I should have been a little bit smarter” refrain toward the end of the song, it forces any listener’s hopes to sky-rocket, thinking the singer may be back to her old, soulful self. And, to be fair, “Don’t Start Lying to Me Now” is biting in spite of its attempt at soft-core R&B. Even so, the song is still a glaring example of those intangible things the album is missing as we see the singer come up a bit short even when she tries to dabble back into her roots.
So, yes. Joss Stone is awfully angry. Angry at what? Well, that’s still up for debate. Could it be another lover who has criminally done her wrong? Could it be that dreaded, evil record label that held her down for so many years? Who knows, really. What we do know, though, is that the songs that make up LP1 are covered in spite (she’s never dared used the words “shit” and “bitch” in such a manner as she does on a few songs here). But even with those biting words and sometimes-screamy vocal performances, something about the entire effort seems a bit put-on. What earned the singer so many accolades for so many years was her innate ability to channel—and subsequently bare—her soul while singing and performing. You simply believed what she was saying, no matter the backdrop. And while it’s impossible to truly define what makes LP1 so frustrating, it’s safe to say that through all the angry growls and snoozy pop melodies that color the album, believing is Joss Stone becomes increasingly difficult each time these songs are played.