Take a quick glance at Alice Russell's career thus far. and you would be forgiven for scratching your head in confusion. Why isn't this woman a household name, on par with the Amy's, Adele's and Emeli's of the industry? Why has she been overlooked by those who hail newcomers such as Jessie Ware and Lianne La Havas as the next big things? Sure, she is celebrated by tastemakers and fellow artists, but stop and ask someone on the street and chances are they won't know who you are talking about. These are questions I have often pondered when listening to one of her albums, whether it be her solo material or one of her numerous and varied collaborations. She has the talent, that's for sure. So why hasn't she "blown up"? I don't have the answer, neither do her legions of adoring, dedicated and loyal fans, but let me say that To Dust, Alice's fifth studio album, may just be the one one to make everyone sit up and realize what the rest of us have known for a long time. Alice Russell is the real deal.
To Dust is an eclectic bag of musical tricks, but the one thing that holds it all together is the working relationship between Alice and her musical partner/producer TM Juke. The pair have a long history of working together, and they are also great friends to boot, so the level of understanding between the two rivals any of the great musical partnerships. Juke knows how to pitch tracks just right to bring the best out of Alice, and Alice repays him by posessing a voice so elastic that she can match whatever beat or track he can conjure up. Album opener "A to Z" is a great introduction to the pair's sound for those who are unfamiliar. As Alice runs through the relationship lexicon, Juke matches the highs and lows with a mixture of booming bass and shiny synths, but always ensuring that her voice is the centre of attention. The album's first single "Heartbreaker" paints a similar picture, albeit with a very different musical landscape, as Alice gives a nod to the retro-stylings of her last outing, 2008's Pot Of Gold, but this is no Motown-mimicking "soul-by-numbers". On the contrary it's Latin-esque guitar work and heavy percussion gives the track a fresh vibe while still maintaining a familiar feel. If "Heartbreaker" gives a nod to the past then its counterpart, "Heartbreaker Pt. 2" (which actually appears before "Heartbreaker" on the tracklisting), brings things back up to date with its bluesy guitar riffs and hip-hop inspired bassline, giving rise to a modern day "break-up" masterpiece best played at full volume through a decent set of speakers.
Elsewhere on the album, Alice is doing her best to display her versatility as both a songwriter and a vocalist. The syncopated "For A While" is an early standout, with its gospel-inflected adlibs and rhythm that, once heard, cannot be easily forgotten. "Hard and Strong" brings in elements of rock and ups the funk factor significantly, while "Let Go (Breakdown)" is destined to fill dance floors far and wide (side note: I'd have like it if they kept the Darondo feature, but who knows, maybe it wasn't possible). The album's title track slows proceedings down a touch as Alice's puts Mr. Taxman on blast, but in a classy tell-it-like-it-is manner and it is the perfect prelude to what may be the album's biggest highlight, "I Loved You." Here Alice's mighty vocals are on full display as she pulls out all the stops to go toe-to-toe with Adele in the "boy you done me wrong" stakes. It's not just in raw power that Alice stands up to the fellow Brit, she also possesses her effortless control and ability to draw you into the emotion of the song, all attributes we want from a soul singer, but unfortunately attributes that are missing in many deemed as such.
The interludes on To Dust are also worthy of a mention. As I pointed out the tracklisting is somewhat irregular, with "Heartbreaker Pt. 2" preceding "Pt. 1" and both coming before the "Heartbreaker Interlude." Also "I Loved You Interlude" appears a full two tracks before the actual song. At first glance I wondered whether the tracklisting on my promo copy had somehow gotten mixed up, but once you listen to the album it all makes perfect sense, the sequencing of the "Heartbreaker" triplet is like those movies that give you the ending right at the start, then tell you how it got there, and "I Loved You Interlude" gives you a 30-second a cappella glimpse of great things to come. My favorite, though, is "Drinking Song Interlude," which is actually more of a short song clocking in at two minutes, that shows off the edgier production flourishes that blend in elsewhere on the album. A final mention goes to "Citzens" with its gospel-tinged backing vocals and simple piano work creating the perfect framework for Alice's stab at social commentary, which makes a nice change from the relationship-focused songs that precede it. Out of everything here, this is the song that will appeal to those who are fans of Alice's quirkier moments on Under The Munka Moon and My Favourite Letters.
We began this review by stating that it's unfathomable why Alice Russell isn't up there with the big names in modern soul music. It could be timing, it could be down to budgets, it could be down to luck. It's certainly not through lack of talent or great material. Here's hoping that the combination of the public's renewed interest in "real singers" and a set of excellent modern soul songs, catapults Alice into the mainstream consciousness. If it doesn't, then we will have to console ourselves with the fact that those who do know her know we are on to a great thing.