The question isn’t whether this works. It doesn’t. There’s promise, and the band is good, but the feel is NPR at the Apollo, and Stone’s showy, half-trained vocals are pumped so high in the mix that it’s difficult to concentrate on anything else. The question becomes, then: To which biz trend can blame best be assigned?
First up is the neosoul movement. Like Angie and Macy and — Lord — Maxwell, whose amniotic jams work better behind sonogram photos than actual conception, Stone and crew sacrifice songs for feel but never really nail that, either. It’s sleepy, all midtempo and melisma, until the record positively flatlines with ballads.
Or it could be the idea of the old-souled phenom who connects to music the world presumed had died. This sixteen-year-old Brit is a talent, sure, but music ain’t tennis — she needs time to develop. Her voice is wide and warm, and she doesn’t bellow like today’s pop stars, but there’s hardly a word she doesn’t hit twice as hard as she needs to. And her dips into pure homage are embarrassing, as when she cops Aretha’s exhilarating What it is, what it is runs from “Rock Steady.” Stone nicks the gin but misses the juice.
Or is it the Buena Vista/O Brother template, forgotten masters reassembled for one last crack at the songs that failed to make them famous? The session folks here, credited with Betty Wright’s sound way back, can certainly cook, but they never get to break loose, other than the lopsided blues grooves laid down on Stone’s gender-bent cover of the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl” — but — oh, wait — that’s the Roots on that one. No doubt the old folks could handle Jack White’s elementary changes, but once authenticity is a lock, S-Curve still needs a bid for the interest of the hundred thousand white guys with firm allegiance to Spin and M2 — you know, the people who still actually buy CDs.
But my guess is it’s simpler and more cynical than all of this. Maybe what it is, what it is is just the latest attempt to capture a white audience convinced that black music needs to be protected from actual black people.