Before I start talking about rock/R&B/soul “chanteuse” Alice Smith of Washington, D.C. and of “Woodstock” and “For Lovers And Dreamers And Me” fame, full-disclosure, I am hopelessly biased. It’s easy for anyone to be biased for Alice if they know her journey, have enjoyed her in concert and donated to her Kickstarter campaign that got this album off the ground. (Fuller disclosure, I donated.) But probably the only person more biased than maybe me is her own family, who I had the pleasure of living with the entire time I lived in Washington, D.C.
In one of those weird coincidences of our indifferent universe, Alice’s mother had a basement for me to rent at a modest price, especially so for Capitol HillEnglish basement prices (which can get insane). I had no idea of what living there would mean — having the world’s most understanding landlady and rare occasions when I would be awoken early on Sunday mornings to someone — probably Alice — playing the piano and her singing in that charging, alarming, disarming, beautiful, loud, wake-the-fuck-up-Alice-Smith-is-SANGING voice of hers.
Even groggy, hung over and grouchy, it’s a stunning voice to behold in person. Or from underground. Like the blogging troll of Capitol Hill.
So for me, it feels like Alice Smith’s SHE, her first album in six years since her debut, has already been out. Most of the song I either heard in concert or playing on the weekends on the stereo by her mother. In-between the Nina Simone and Sade albums (two influences you can often hear in Alice’s music), her mother played her daughter’s albums. She played the album Alice recorded but would never be released by her former record label because, allegedly, it didn’t have a “radio” single. I loved the album so much, especially the song “Martha,” I would fantasize about elaborate Ocean 11 style plots to get the CD out of the stereo, copy it onto my laptop and put it back in her mother’s stereo, none the wiser.
I never did that though. I knew the album was for her mother only since it could never be released.
That album was then replaced in rotation by “SHE,” with songs like “Cabaret” and “The One” teasing me with their irresistable greatness, yet not exisiting on my iTunes playlist.
Now fully released, “SHE” lives up to what Alice’s fans have been waiting ever so diligently for. Her four octave voice runs and flares and blares and booms and blasts, yet it never feels like she’s over singing. There’s no overuse of melisma, no autotune, no back-up — just Alice in the raw on full blast giving every song her gutsy, soulful all.
The standouts are the leading track “Cabaret” where Alice asks “where are you going with your life” before reveling in how life is a cabaret of adventure and champagne. It’s bouncy and doesn’t fit any particular genre like most of Alice’s music. (If you had to put Alice’s music in a genre the genre would simply be called “good.”) It recalls the musical Cabaret, but it’s not a traditional musical number. Her voice recalls that of a jazz vocalist meets gymnast, but it’s not a jazz song.
“The One,” on the other hand is closer to soul/R&B ballad territory with some clever wordplay recalling New York Hip Hop as Alice goes into “I see what you did there” territory when she punchily sings “I’m not the one, don’t you play, don’t you play, don’t you play me, son.”
Tracks “Ocean” and the beautifully breezy “With You” may recall some Prince, in that, again, she isn’t uncharicterizable much like all of Prince’s music was. “Shot,” after all has a bit of 80s New Wave lurking in its blues. Alice’s album a lot of those random moments when the genre flips (sometimes blending in and out mid-song). She’s suddenly singing the classic country sounding “Loyalty” an ode to friendship betrayal or the sweet and relaxing “Be Easy” which sounds like it wouldn’t be out of place on a 90s R&B album. Title track “SHE” is a blues rock number of bold expression and assertiveness. And there’s a cover of Cee-Lo Green’s “Fool For Love” that rivals the original.
If you’re someone who wants to see Alice blow up and go beyond being the darling of vocal purists and people who lived in her mom’s basement, there are a few tracks on here that if they got on the radio could take off, namely “The One” and “With You,” but if a record executive were listening to this he’d probably say THERE IS NO RADIO SINGLE. On her Kickstarter page, Alice recalls her experience with Epic Records and their desire to “make a hit” at the cost of her artistic integrity.
After I released my first album, For Lovers, Dreamers and Me, on BBE Records in 2006, I signed to Epic Records. I struggled within the restraints. For the first two years they refused to support me recording music, or even touring. Then when a new president came, I thought it was my big chance to escape and make music again. But no, this new president didn’t want to let me go. Then started a very stressful year of writing with random people, with unrealistic and imposed expectations. It was so hard for me to say yes to these ridiculous notions about how to “make a hit”, but I was trying all the time to learn patience and compromise. I would cry and scream ‘no’, and then wonder what I really wanted. Always the answer was to make music, so I continued on the corporate wheel. After a year, we agreed on an album and mastered it. I thought that when it finally came out, I would call my second album The Last After. As in no more waiting! But alas, it wasn’t to be. After 4+ years of trips to the dreaded Sony building, they decided not to release the album that I did in my last year, and we agreed to part ways. What a blessing!
It’s true. Her freedom is a blessing. And yes, there’s no song on here you can slap a Kanye West rap on top of. There is no club banger. There is no Beyonce-like play for anthems. But if you’re an Alice Smith fan, you probably didn’t want that on your Alice Smith album in the first place.
After all, you bought this album fo the wake-the-fuck-up-Alice-Smith-is-SANGING of it all. Not the same stuff you can get anywhere.
SHE will be released on iTunes, everywhere March 19th.