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PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Catherine Russell: Cat

Catherine Russell
World Village

The music world is full of timing issues — when to release a single, when to tour, when to go solo, when to make a comeback, when to demand an accounting from your record label, when to give up on succeeding with said accounting. Lately, I’ve been intrigued by artists who decide to release a debut album after spending many, many years in the business. Earlier this year, legendary songwriter Bobby Sharp, of “Unchain My Heart” fame, released his “debut” entitled The Fantasy Sessions. And so, despite his contributions to the American jazz songbook, he didn’t have his own package of tunes before he turned 80. Maybe he had the idea before, but never found the right time to bring it to fruition.

Distinguished artist Catherine Russell sets out to realize the same dream with Cat, her 15-song debut of musically and lyrically entertaining covers. Russell, born in 1956 to talented vocalist Carline Ray and bandleader Luis Russell, has had a fascinating and diverse sojourn in the music industry. She’s traveled extensively, belting out tunes on stages and in television and recording studios, and collaborating with a Who’s Who of musicians, like Rosanne Cash, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, Cyndi Lauper, Joan Osborne, Dolly Parton, Madonna, Paul Simon, and Steely Dan. In 2004, she toured with David Bowie on his widely celebrated and highly regarded A Reality Tour.

Then there’s the TV world. Fretless Productions provides a list of television commercial jingles that were enhanced by Russell’s inspired melodies. You can even download the clips, if you’re into that sort of thing, so you can build the ultimate playlist on your digital player of choice by including commercials from American Express, Bud Light, Diary Queen, JC Penney, Wishbone, and Honda. It can be quite addictive, actually; you haven’t made the perfect mix until you’ve sandwiched a commercial jingle or the theme song from Magnum P.I. between your Led Zeppelin and your Wu-Tang Clan. That’s crazy, I’ll admit. What’s even crazier (in a good way) is the energy Russell brought to those jingles. She almost motivated me to buy a case of Wishbone salad dressing and a facial scrub.

She transfers that same energy to Cat. Although the album title might bring to mind the idea of a cat’s nine lives, I prefer to interpret it as short for “Catherine,” implying a personal relationship between the singer and her material.

That relationship is accomplished through Russell’s execution. Her smooth and sultry vocals are well suited for mellow crooners like “Sad Lover Blues”, “Where Can I Go Without You”, and “The Poker”. At the same time, she can approach a song with an unexpected, yet entertaining fierceness, as she does on “Back O Town Blues”. “Back O Town Blues” also shows the album’s sensitivity regarding song selection, as this tune was co-written by the singer’s father and Louis Armstrong. Then there’s the Leroy Kirkland and Mamie Thomas song that needs no introduction, “My Man’s an Undertaker”, with lyrics such as: “You better not knock on my door at night / Better keep your mouth shut good and tight / Cause my man’s an undertaker / And he’s got a coffin just your size.”

There’s no better way for a lady to rub an ex-flame’s nose in the success and toughness of her new beau. Russell displays the wit and charm to make the song a winner. Similarly, the best way to get your head nodding and your foot tapping is to put on “The Late, Late Show” or enjoy the exuberant “Juneteenth Jamboree”.

Those picks, however, are nothing compared to the album’s three standouts. The first, Sam Cooke’s “Put Me Down Easy”, finds singer and band firing on all cylinders, working in unison. It could arguably be considered the best song on the disc, although it might have to fight Russell’s soulful cover of the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie” for top honors. The third highlight is “You Were Made For Me”, another Sam Cooke gem, rendered with remarkable timbre and tenderness.

In addition to the Russell’s vocals and the careful song selection involved in this project, the album features tight, no-nonsense arrangements, especially from the strings. She’s accompanied by Stuart J. Rosenberg (mandolin, banjo-mandolin, and violin), Frank Portolese (guitars), Don Stille (piano, organ, and accordion), Jim Cox (acoustic upright bass), and Morris Jennings (drums and tambourine). Additional guitar by T.C. Furlong on “The Late, Late Show” spices up the act, while both Furlong and Paul Kahn add guitars to “Blue Memories”.

Still, there are some peculiar and quirky points about this release. While the song selection is enviable, the inclusion of both “Darn that Dream” and “Deep in a Dream” might be thematically repetitive, and the Grateful Dead cover — as awesome as it is — makes for a curious closer. Further, the collection as a whole presents a melancholy mood that is at odds with Russell’s joyous tone. Effectively conveying sadness in a song like “Blue Memories” would help any singer pull off lines like: “Please forgive me / For what I have done / I ran around / And let you down / Leaving me the bluest of blue memories.” But Russell’s excitement almost comes across too well, giving her delivery a connotation of happiness in spite of the song lyrics, like a person who nods his or her head “yes” while saying the word “no.”

The tension is subtle, although many of the songs in the set are sad songs. It’s similar to the photo of Russell in the liner notes, showing her infectious smile as she forwards her left shoulder at the camera to display her tattoo of a spider web adorned with roses and skulls. I imagine the prominent display of the tattoo was meant to show some edginess, just as the pathos of the songs should evoke somberness, yet I keep coming away with the feeling that I’m listening to a really, really nice singer (with not so much edge) who’s hardly unhappy.

You get the impression she has an affinity for these songs, but the convergence of tone and denotation might have made an already good collection even better. As an example, when Toni Braxton released her debut of sad love songs back in the ’90s, I was genuinely afraid for her well-being — just from listening to the songs, especially “Breathe Again”. While I don’t necessarily need to be moved that much, it’s sometimes worth it to be absorbed in the music and swept up in the world of the song.

Nevertheless, Cat is a fine debut from an accomplished vocalist and musician. Russell’s voice is amazing and, even with minor nitpicks, the entire set is a joy. In fact, I’d recommend it just for the cover of “Put Me Down Easy”. The other good thing about Russell’s debut is the possibility that the time will soon be right for an encore.

RATING 6 / 10