Quite possibly the best five-track span of songs to ever appear on a Joss Stone record lies on her 2007 masterpiece, Introducing…. From the swing of “Girl, They Won’t Believe It”, to the sassy “Headturner”, to the infectious hook of “Tell Me ‘Bout It”, to the perfect Common collaboration “Tell Me What We’re Gonna Do Now”, and finally to the overly-aggressive, in your face “Put Your Hands on Me”, it’s hard to believe the Englishwoman will ever top the brilliance of that stretch.
So maybe that’s what makes Stone’s latest, Colour Me Free, a tad disappointing. It would be different had the singer decided to begin the record with a mediocre take on a new hip band’s latest single, or some watered-down, covered-a-thousand-times pop soul classic. But unfortunately for Stone, she picks up right where that five-song stretch leaves off, opening Colour Me Free with easily one of the best songs she’s ever written, “Free Me”, a groovy soulful gem that climaxes with a little over a minute left as the crooner and her back-up singers chant the title words as though the spirit of Aretha Franklin happened to be hanging out in the next room.
Why is that unfortunate? Well, setting the bar that high that early on makes it nearly impossible to follow up with anything that could be better, let alone on par with how great that first track is. That doesn’t mean Colour Me Free is bad by any stretch of a soul music lover’s imagination, but it does create a level of expectation that the rest of the album’s tracks simply don’t live up to.
Songs like “Lady” and the not-so-new “Governmentalist” both embody pure late ‘60s/early ‘70s rock, soul, and funk, but both songs also leave you in a trippy haze that makes you want to reach for your closest “Best Of” Jimi Hendrix collection. And that’s fine if you want to explore atmospheric, guitar god-like jams, but coming from the woman who penned such pop hits as “You Had Me” and “Super Duper Love”, one would have to assume the listener is likely looking for more Etta James than James Patrick Page.
Stone shines best when she realizes that, too. “Incredible” nearly lives up to the “Free Me” bar, as its groovy midtempo stance gets a bolt of energy from an emphatic chorus that is only heightened by the angst the singer’s band showcases wonderfully behind her. As the band’s horn section shines and the somewhat lo-fi drum production keeps the feel sincere, it may be the only time throughout all of Colour Me Free that you actually understand how the diva seems to feel. “You Got the Love” is close behind, considering its James Brown/Earth, Wind & Fire-influenced backbeat is a lovely touch and a good homage to modern day funk music. Both standout tracks wouldn’t be possible without the prominence of her standout horn players and it’s a wonder why they aren’t featured more frequently throughout the entire album—or more so, why they are featured in the way they are in certain instances, such as the somewhat bluesy “I Believe It to My Soul”.
The only times the album really stays afloat without the help of the horns are on the piano-driven, faux-jazz cut “And 20” and the generic “Big Ol’ Game”, a classic rock-inspired track that is saved only by the excellent Raphael Saadiq’s buried cameo throughout each chorus. While both tracks seemed forced in their own unique way, both tracks also see Stone come the closest to pulling off a different musical direction than any other instance where she strays from what she does best: Rhythm & Blues.
And that’s why Colour Me Free comes up a bit short. It’s a classic case of the soul sister aspiring to become the rock sister, or the blues sister, or, even in some cases, the jazz sister. Those desires to explore other ends of the musical spectrum can make a great thing merely good, and a good thing oftentimes poor. Fortunately for Stone, her sheer vocal talent ensures that a trip into the poor category is probably never going to happen. But when an artist as good as Stone settles for mediocrity, and five brilliant moments dwindle to a mere one, then skeptics, critics, and fans alike can’t help but feel at least a little shortchanged after hearing how tall her a voice like hers is capable of being.