Picture Joss Stone. Now, picture Joss Stone as a dude. Now, you know exactly what James Morrison sounds like.
Of course, I should elaborate. Morrison is the latest entry in what’s being touted as a 21st century British Invasion. Along with previously successful acts ranging from Stone to Coldplay, this year has seen several Brit acts make some noise across the shores. Lily Allen’s album is already a modest hit, and Amy Winehouse is about to crash to American shores with a bang. Unfortunately, Morrison (quite obviously no relation to The Doors’ long-depared lead singer or any of his kin) has less in common with any of these acts and much more in common with a fairly recent Brit export who went as quickly as he came—the dead boring Craig David.
Well, let me take that statement back a little. Morrison definitely has a much better instrument than the thin-voiced David. His thick rasp suggests a lifetime of listening to everyone from Stevie Wonder to Van Morrison. It’s a pretty instrument, and with five or ten years of life experience, it could grow into something truly wondrous.
With that said, the material on Undiscovered, his debut album, is below standard. The songs are typical boy/girl love tripe, and Morrison still has to figure out that there’s more to being soulful than just having a pretty voice. There’s something about this album’s awkward lyrics and the “organic” arrangements that seems to be put-on. Technically speaking, the album is spot on. You will hear this in a record store (well, if there are any left in America by the time this album is released) and say to yourself “wow, this is pretty good”. You will then buy the album, take it home, and be profoundly disappointed.
Listening to this album, I found myself playing a lengthy game of “This Song Sounds Like”. The dusky “One Last Chance” (easily the album’s best track) is a bluesy guitar solo away from being a modern-day Jonny Lang track, while the ballad “The Pieces Don’t Fit Anymore” sounds like it came from the reject pile of the boring-but-not-THAT-boring Gavin DeGraw. “Call the Police”, actually, has a very strong resemblance to DeGraw’s breakout hit “I Don’t Want to Be”—even down to the words “I don’t want to be” being repeated several times over the course of the song. The singer Morrison most closely resembles, though, is New Orleans’ upstart Marc Broussard, whose inconsistent debut a couple of years back had a similar flavor, albeit with much more in the way of high points.
Cliché is a big problem here. On certain songs, the lyrics are so ordinary that you can pretty much suss out the next line before it’s even sung. The album’s title track is a quasi-inspirational ballad-by-numbers, right down to the crescendo and the church choir jumping in for the song’s final chorus. The opening tune, “Under the Influence”, contains faint “accidental” call-and-response vocals and applause at the end that’s supposed to give it an off-the-cuff, “just hanging out” type of feel, but all those unnecessary additives do is make the song sound annoyingly precious.
It’s a situation that’s plagued young singers from Joss Stone to Beyoncé. What do you do when a singer has obviously learned everything right vocally but lacks the emotional balls to pull the songs off? While there are echoes of everything from the summery ease of Stevie Wonder to shouting matches in the manner of Otis Redding, that’s all they are-echoes. Ultimately, Undiscovered sounds like an authentic soul record after being run through a Xerox machine eight or nine times. It’s a pale facsimile, with all of the life and color drained out. It took Stone three albums to find her true voice, let’s see if Morrison gets the chance to develop in the same manner.