Joss Stone’s ‘Water For Your Soul’ is an Undersalted Caribbean Buffet (Album Review)
In 2003, 16-year-old Joss Stone stripped down a White Stripes staple track, re-recorded it with Questlove as a producer and instantly became the face of youthful soul pop. "Fell in Love with a Boy" and The Soul Sessions—a collection of smokey covers—spoke loudly in the declarative: This was an incredible talent, her music would not pander and radio still had space for funk.
Twelve years later, a familiar notion—that going against the grain could pay off for Stone—has, instead, left her with a dry, fruitless harvest.
Water for Your Soul, the artist's 14-track ska/reggae experiment, is a risk with no reward. Where Stone's soul-throwbacks have been more than convincing, her short stay in the Caribbean relies on gimmicks, progresses like an an anesthetic drip and underscores a voice that's a whispery fraction of its former self. The Damian Marley-produced work is No Doubt without the Gwen; Ziggy without the weed.
The album's malaise sets in about halfway through "Love Me," its first track that could score last call at a beach-facing bar where a handful of patrons have fallen face-down into the dunes and cozies collect by the pool's filter. The trend of sleepy-but-not-dreamy continues through "Cut the Line," a haphazard race to match a drum's arrhythmic beat and "Way Oh," which catches Stone's voice climbing toward something, but ultimately leaves her stranded at base camp. "He's never gonna do me like that / He's my man, my heart, my buffalo soldier," she asserts.
Still, Stone, now 28, is no longer content waxing poetic on love (or waxing nostalgic on love lost), and uses "Harry's Symphony," which strangely borrows from Inner Circle and Placebo's "Pure Morning," as a map to chart her journey toward unabashed, cannabis-collecting independence. (You'd be remiss to forget she's got her own label called Stone'd and has copped to smoking weed with Marley on a boat.)
"This one is designed for 18 and over," she calls out. "A friend in need is a friend, indeed / But a friend with weed is better."
Curiously, along a path lined with good vibes and breezy tones, Stone's strongest Water offering comes from "This Ain't Love," a page from Aretha Franklin's book of tell-offs that mixes the album's familiarly twangy guitar with a contemporary drum line and eager, pronounced bass.
"Baby won't you realize / You know that I'm not your prize / Now, why we wasting our time? / To me, you're nothing at all," she sings. The track should have been the blueprint; instead, it's the exception.
Still, "Sensimilla," a beautifully airy sister track to Destiny's Child's "Emotion" cover, is strong, too, and "The Answer," the album's first single, is worth a second listen, but neither is powerful enough to compensate for what's otherwise missing: fire, urgency and excitement that was once standard of the Grammy-winner's recording sessions. Here, she doesn't seek to merge her talents with an existing concept; she forfeits her skill completely in an attempt to duplicate reggae novelty. She suffers for it, and the result is undersalted and underwhelming.
Further, the out-of-left-field sampling of Latin flare—"Clean Water" rests on Santana-ish picking and "Let Me Breathe" could be confused for an early aughts Enrique Iglesias pop hit—stick out like sore thumbs, and force the listener to wonder if Stone was working with a busted compass when she set out to plot her project. She admitted to NPR that she had misgivings during Water's production, but that Marley ultimately put her at ease.
"With Damian kind of saying, 'Yes, this is good,' it made me feel more confident," she recalled. "I think that's important, because you need the support from the people that actually do it and have been doing it for years and years and years. They know that sound."
Perhaps PopCrush is operating on a different frequency, but our ears don't hear a hint of "Welcome to Jamrock."
When operating with her own kitchen's burners, Stone is a Michelin-rated chef, but listening to Water for Your Soul is sort of like seeking out the perfect cut of jerk chicken from a street vendor at Epcot: It's lacking flavor, could do with a few more minutes on the grill and stays sticky with pre-bottled sauce.
The Soul singer surely has talents beyond the blues, but as far as Water is concerned, thirst doesn't sound like too terrible an alternative.
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