I read a piece recently that cited JP to back up the all too common assertion, “They don’t make soul records like they used to”. Well, I may be missing something but this seems to me exactly the kind of fare that has been part of the staple diet of black music and particularly so since the early Seventies. It may not be to everybody’s taste, but Jesse Powell’s third offering since his 1995 debut is completely in the tradition.
There is a peculiar view emerging, especially in the British “quality” press, that once upon a time every soul record was a What’s Going On or a Curtis—i.e. full of groundbreaking arrangements and astute social commentary.Now, setting aside the fact that those very papers completely ignored Marvin, Curtis et al back in the day, the awkward fact is that the bulk of black music then consisted, unsurprisingly, of love songs—some fairly innocuous, some more profound. The music was geared towards dancing but there were plenty of ballads for getting wistful or smoochy to. The whole sound was slick, well orchestrated, beautifully sung, sensual and sentimental—and, to non-Soul fans, rather corny.
All of which applies applies to this release which, though not perfect by any means, has some fine moments and plenty of impressive vocal performances. It won’t win too many awards in the innovation department, being a fairly familiar slab of soulful pop. R. Kelly and Seventies’ vocal groups are key reference points in a set that leans heavily on the slow tunes but does contain a couple of tasty, mid-tempo shufflers for the dance-floor. Mostly, it is contemporary only in the instrumentation. Vocally and attitudinally it could find a home in any of the past three decades. If it has a favoured historical moment, the last track, a cover of One Way/Al Hudson’s “Something in the Past”, would suggest the ballad side of the post-disco, pre Jack-swing era.
Powell has a number of factors on his side. He has a four-octave singing range that he uses sensibly and he hails from Gary, Indiana, home of the Jacksons. He, himself, is part of a talented musical family—some of whom pop up on the record to quite scene-stealing effect. As to the Jackson connection, if Motown was still the force it once was, Powell is undoubtedly the sort of artist they would have picked up on. Young, presentable, from a gospel background and with a penchant for the commercial end of the soul spectrum—he would have been served well by the Gordy machine.
Not that his co-producers ( Shep Crawford and Rodney Jerkins among others) have done badly by him. There is a sensitivity about the arrangements that makes the most of the material on offer. If there is a problem it is simply that there are too many meandering tunes of an inferior and forgettable quality. You could lose at least four ballads easily and not do any damage. Which four might be a problem—as sameness is something of a feature of JP. Because it is the kind of thing radio loves, I would save the very mainstream opener, “It’ll Take the World”—although its glossiness does little for me. “Invisible Man” and the vocally acrobatic, “If I”, are marred somewhat by the tiredness of the melodies. I had (for one fanciful moment) hoped that “Invisible Man” was going to be something to do with Ralph Ellison, but after an artfully rendered opening verse it subsides into the worst kind of self-pitying soft-rock weepie. As he has scored with them previously, there was inevitably pressure on Powell to up the ballad quotient on this set. He should have resisted it. However, the Hudson cover and the completely convincing “I Didn’t Realise” are the genuine article and will be dug up in a few years time to show a next generation that nobody sings proper love songs any more. Give Powell a half-decent song and he does it more than justice. As does his mother, Emerald Williams, whose input into “Something in the Past” more than matches her son’s high level of ability.
It is easy to see why the slowies attract him. His voice can slide so effortlessly across, up and down the technical and emotional scale that a form that allows him the scope to do so has a strong pull. On uptempo numbers he does sound less distinctive. Having said that, two of the best tracks are actually the bounciest. Unfortunately for Jessie, the main reasons for their effectiveness are the lively contributions of his sisters, Trina and Tamara. An under-rated duo, they seize their moments well. “I’m Leaving” and “Can’t Take It” are perfectly executed, punchy, R&B shufflers that will appeal to modern soul fans and the urban posse alike. The female contributions are so effective that I would suggest that a Powell family session might be worth putting together.
Until then the relatively unchanging market for this type of product will be happy enough with the well-crafted smoothness of JP. It will be ignored as too teen-oriented by the “serious” soul fans, and as too soft by those whose only idea of current black music is rap. This is a shame because Jesse Powell is a gifted singer. A better selection of songs—or a carefully chosen Best Of—would confirm this. Until then, the skip button will be needed. Give the better tracks a chance, though. Two fine dancers and two memorable ballads represent as healthy a percentage of winners as you will find on the majority of “vintage” LPs from whatever golden age you care to choose.