With the release of Morning in 2006, Amel Larrieux surpassed her status as the mere neo-soul siren she had been branded as a result of two previous albums. Larrieux had waltzed into the neo-soul realm right at its onset, allying herself with the conventions of the genre on her solo debut Infinite Possibilities, a release as smooth as it was safe. She began to experiment with sound as she wrestled out of her major label contract, resulting in the independent release of Bravebird, a dark and less accessible endeavor than its predecessor. With this record, Larrieux had positioned herself at the outskirts of neo-soul’s comfort level, and with the creation of Morning, Larrieux had stripped R&B down to its core elements, resulting in a mild revivalism of the dying neo-soul movement and a surefire backlash to the misconception that the genre is only based on silky keyboards and friendly radio-lite melodies.
It is no surprise that Larrieux, despite diddling with the conventions of R&B, has had an affinity for jazz, infusing her records with tinges of scat and laconic chord progressions that hint at inspiration from the genre. Larrieux has always seasoned her records with these flourishes, as the songs possessed the duality of being a smooth R&B gem or an enjoyable dip into lite-jazz. Her vocal styling has been the perfect atypical instrument that suited her neo-soul records, but while she has always traversed the line between R&B and jazz styles, her voice was always too thin to maintain an entire record’s worth of jazz. Lovely Standards, one of Larrieux’s three promised releases this year, is exactly that attempt to be heard in a jazz context, with 10 covers that dramatically shift away from the minimalist experimentalism of Morning and delve into a quintet-based smoothness that blurs each track into a coffee shop-friendly groove.
Each of the covers exposes Larrieux’s eclecticism in terms of inspiration. Larrieux has a clear penchant for show tunes and big band numbers, with the record featuring a random assortment of songs like Leonard Cohen’s “Lucky to Be Me” from the musical On the Town and Tiompkin and Washington’s “Wild Is the Wind,” but instead of doing a note-for-note carbon copy of each track, Larrieux re-contextualizes and tailors them to fit a jazz mold. The album is brief and quaint, mild in its mellow nature and glossily rich in its production from Larrieux’s husband Laru Larrieux. But like any cover album that is not an attempt to completely reinterpret the songs’ inspirations, Lovely Standards succumbs to the trappings of being merely comfortable in a smoky jazz setting without extrapolating on the originals in any form, resulting in a record that lacks the punch and excitement of Larrieux’s previous releases and one that settles for silk and sap over bravado.
That is not to say that the album is not enjoyable or even creative. The record’s opener, a cover of Frank Loesser’s “If I Were a Bell” from the musical Guys and Dolls, was initially inaugurated into the canon of standards by Miles Davis and has been covered by dozens of musicians. On her own version, Larrieux sounds deliberate and sexy, hitting notes with an affable air and displaying an inherent familiarity with the tune. The arrangement is based on the gentle brush of a ride and the saunter of an upright bass, giving the record the basic jazz treatment upon which it is based. Larrieux even flexes a hint of possible jazz training by clenching her tongue and palette on the lines “If I were a bridge, I’d be burning,” stretching out the last word to give the note a thick and penetrating character. She also flirts with this method on “Lucky to Be Me”, pulling a note up as the instruments drop out of the track, sealing in a deeply affecting emotive charge.
Despite chill-inducing moments like these, the record is simply too comfortable to break new ground. On “You’re My Thrill,” written by Jay Gorney and Sidney Clare, Larrieux languidly challenges herself by dipping into her lower range, but her attempts are undermined by the ghosts of the legends who have previously covered the track. Greats like Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day have all previously taken on the tune, each peppering their versions with voices that were littered with idiosyncrasies to overcome the accompaniment of the musicians behind them. But for Larrieux, her voice’s most prominent characteristic—the contracted vibrato at the end of each note—is not substantial enough to give the cover a refreshing vitality. The mixing puts her voice at the forefront, but falling victim to the tepid arrangement supporting her, Larrieux settles for riding the instruments instead of outshining them.
The track “Shadow of Your Smile”, a duet between Larrieux and the finger-plucking of an acoustic guitar, is another example of this temerity. Without an intricate arrangement, Larrieux is given the opportunity to move past the sultry confines of smooth jazz and challenge the structure of the song. But instead, she simply filters in her R&B sexiness and lightly moves with the accompaniment. “I Like the Sunrise”, the album’s closer and longest track, is one of the most restrained on Lovely Standards. Larrieux often whispers her words, sacrificing character for seductiveness, and when the instruments begin to accelerate towards the end of the track, she glides along the notes instead of commanding them. With the potential to have allowed her voice to overcome the instruments with her authoritative power, she hazily slithers along with notes that fail to penetrate the listener’s attention.
With her R&B records, Larrieux has an ineffable ability to pair her vocal talent with a no-frills attitude, allowing her wispy voice to simultaneously gleam with character and experiment with jazz-isms if the instrumentation allows her to do so. For example, the instrumentation on “Down”, a thundering tune on Infinite Possibilities, creates a space for Larrieux to freely scat and bop over the neo-soul arrangement without sounding trite or subdued. But with Lovely Standards, Larrieux constantly falls into the trap of matching her accompaniments by simply hitting the notes and falling into the arms of the production. At its best, this record is perfectly tailored for Starbucks franchises and lonely hearts, but it is almost heartbreaking to hear a record that simmers like this from an artist that shined light on a dying genre with her last release. Fortunately, the record is a clear effort to shake out the “cover album” impulse, and with two more full-lengths on the horizon, Larrieux can hopefully return from this digression to do what she does best: challenge the conformities of rhythm and blues by merely hinting at jazz influence.
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