LTL Excerpt 4: Future voices in the present: Alice Smith

R&B and its offshoots have continued to redefine the shape of mainstream pop from rock ‘n’ roll to New Jack to neo-soul.  Alice Smith (b. 1978) infuses contemporary R&B writing, arranging and singing with a broad yet selective palette of colors and textures that moves beyond the neo-soul paradigm into a more eclectic and creative approach to black pop. Smith is a progressive rock and soul singer with a thick, sumptuous voice and a seductive style. Her 2007 debut For Lovers, Dreamers & Me is a fine showcase of her formidable vocal and composition talents that garnered limited commercial attention, but is an accomplished and promising debut. Vocally reminiscent of Me’shell N’degeocello, India.Arie, and Lizz Wright she has a more sensual sound and a wider emotional range than any of them though a less clearly defined commercial niche. She rocks on the guitar-centered “Gary Song” and “New Religion.” Elsewhere she simmers on the opening “Dream” which is comparable to the best neo-soul balladry to emerge in the last decade. The blues piano and insistent, pulsating rhythm of “Desert Song” is equally enthralling in expanding the sound of neo-soul without sounding retro or trendy. “Fake is the New Real” is a brilliant and incisive set of modern observations set to an infectious groove. The concluding “Love Endeavor” is the pièce de résistance, a vulnerable, sexy plea for intimacy with a stirring arrangement and galloping beat that makes you wish for more…

The magnetic Alice Smith in concert. Copyright  ©   2014

The magnetic Alice Smith in concert. Copyright© 2014

She, Smith’s brilliant 2013 follow-up, builds from the strengths of her debut album: it is a genuine fusion of hip-hop soul with modern rock anchored by her full, soulful wail. Thematically it is more tightly focused (mostly on love gone sour) and sonically it has an expansive array of textures ranging from harpsichord to strings to epic, almost neo-gothic background harmonies. It’s an adventurous set beyond the ephemeral dance pop dominating contemporary radio; this probably explains why it was recorded independently.

Whereas many of Smith’s neo-soul contemporaries revere ‘70s soul to a fault she dips into a more exotic and offbeat well for her sound. She begins with a 44 second acapella “Cabaret Prelude” previewing the song’s melody before delving into the fuller version—a galloping anthemic about romantic possibilities. She sings over a stark drum beat punctuated by keyboard and synthesizer riffs over subtle soaring background vocals. This establishes a pattern on the album; in most of She’s songs either her voice or a central riff opens the song then after about a minute a strong percussive element kicks in to propel the song forward rhythmically. Because she covers a range of moods this pattern never feels formulaic. She has a strong torchy element: “The One” is a moody ballad built around a central lyric of admonition “I’m not the one/Don’t play me son.” It begins with a dreamy synthesizer riff followed by Smith’s sweet croon. At 58 seconds drums kick in and the song sways gently. “With You” is another mood piece. She kicks it off with the starkly honest, “None of my friends are cool/ I ain’t got nothing to do/Without you” sung over a synthesized keyboard with fuzzy, dissonant harmonies. About 40 seconds in Fleetwood Mac-ish drums kick in and a bed of soaring vocals builds to the chorus before it settles into a mellow rhythm and returns to the pulsating drums. The piano driven semi-waltz “Loyalty” is probably the most traditional soul ballad. She castigates a “shady” lover over triplets. Though she avoids vocal pyrotechnics Smith knows how to build the song’s inherent drama vocally. She uses her rich, creamy voice sparingly as a feature within arrangements.

The power of this approach is most evident in the most anthemic songs: Her interpretation of Cee Lo Green’s “Fool for You” is a powerful strut of emotional and carnal assurances with an ascending melodic line driven by a sultry beat.  “Shot” is a throbbing portrait of two people discovering love with a clever, irresistible hook buffeted by dense harmonies over a sleek electronic drum beat that never lets up. The set ends with “She” a soulful power ballad. A dancing, rumbling piano riff, with gospel chords plays as Smith wails over it; at 59 seconds drums and thick harmonies kick in before it cools back into the piano riff with surges of what sounds like a snippet of a harpsichord. The beat intensifies once more and Smith and the choral harmonies soar together to its potent conclusion. Smith’s gift for crafting intricate melodies, incorporating a mosaic of textures, and using her voice purposefully is a blueprint for how postmodern concepts of music can transcend the generic and congeal into a personal sound.