If this were the ‘60s, Alice Russell would either give Dusty Springfield or Ethel Merman a run for her money. Maybe both. This Essex-born Brit is all boom, brass and soul. Like Jennifer Hudson and Aretha Franklin, this belter never met a holler she didn’t like. This has never been truer in the Russell catalog than it is on the electrosoul’d time machine ride that is To Dust. Lucky for this towering affair, Russell’s longtime collaborator, guitarist TM Juke, ensures the outsized productions match her note for note. On an album with so little soft in its caress, it helps that Russell has just enough natural sounding church in her alto that none of its theatrics feel forced, despite the edge-of-your seat dramatics characterizing several numbers. If this were RuPaul’s Drag Race, you’d swear Russell was required to “lip sync for her life” on every track, so determined and empowered is every note.
If this were the ‘60s, Alice Russell would either give Dusty Springfield or Ethel Merman a run for her money. Maybe both. This Essex-born Brit is all boom, brass and soul. Like Jennifer Hudson and Aretha Franklin, this belter never met a holler she didn’t like. This has never been truer in the Russell catalog than it is on the electrosoul’d time machine ride that is To Dust. Lucky for this towering affair, Russell’s longtime collaborator, guitarist TM Juke, ensures the outsized productions match her note for note. On an album with so little soft in its caress, it helps that Russell has just enough natural sounding church in her alto that none of its theatrics feel forced, despite the edge-of-your seat dramatics characterizing several numbers. If this were RuPaul’s Drag Race, you’d swear Russell was required to “lip sync for her life” on every track, so determined and empowered is every note. Ardent fans will find Russell on her fifth release more commercial and contemporary than on her early big band soul and dance albums, but that may be just the boost she needs to go from a hidden gem coveted by those in the know to a universally known, international treasure.
Alice Russell is a vocalist who knows how to play it soft and swaying when the music suits her. Loveliness like “Sweet is the Air,” “All Else Can Wait,” or most recently with Quantic on the underground hit, “Look Around The Corner,” all find Alice easing into the song and gliding with it in a dance. Throughout To Dust, Russell is in fight mode, hitting the material with the force of a prizefighter on electric guitar and percussion driven material like “Heartbreaker Pt. 2.” Producer Juke channels his inner Phil Spector and returns her blows with a series of upgraded wall of sound songs that sound like what would happen if you placed the girl groups of the ‘60s (like, say, The Ronettes and The Shirelles) into a time machine, rattled them around in there and released them in a studio booth with a bunch of NY and London club DJ producers. Beneath all the electronic effects and synth arrangements are still elements of that classic, retro soul-pop sound: a Motown backbeat here, a call and response doo wop there, the kitschy chords of a Scepter Records number; all this understated traditionalism anchors the otherwise forward-thinking material to Russell’s Northern soul, dance, and big band soul/funk catalog. The live instrumentation blended with the electronica overlays also serve to provide these songs a warmth and energy that the project’s relentless loudness and pop yearnings would’ve made a soulless affair, regardless of the speakeasy residing in Russell’s throat.
In hiding the least about their soul-pop origins are a hearty trio in “Heartbreaker,” “A to Z” and “Twin Peaks.” “Heartbreaker” is shielded from the retro label by the relentless but impressive drumming, heavy use of reverb, and electronic production sheath thrown over the live rhythm section. Meanwhile, the doo-wop alphabet countdown of “A to Z” is renewed by the distorted effects lain over its organ strokes, giving the campy cut a spectral feel. With plucky key chords you’ve heard before and eerie, high-pitched organ work on “Twin Peaks,” a spacey choral backdrop is about the only thing that keeps this off the darker B-side of ‘60s pop 45s. Ending the look at the flower power days, the title cut, “To Dust,” takes a driving bassline reminiscent of The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” with the melody lines of Aretha Franklin’s best call and response up-tempos and merges them with today’s ambient and electronica accents.
Russell’s refurbishment of the core Civil Rights years is relatively brief. There are other periods to conquer. While still soulful, string heavy, and sporting a rhythm section akin to the Funk Brothers, “Hard and Strong” jumps the time/space continuum again to arrive in the studio for rock/synth pop girl groups of the ‘80s, like The Go-Go’s and Heart. While compelling synth accouterments adorn the propulsive R&B funk of “Drinking Song,” the project’s catchiest hook, one sadly wasted on an interlude that had the potential to be the project’s biggest seller as a full single. Only the neon years’ synth funk hook for “Let Go (Breakdown)” comes closer in broad appeal, with its undeniable chorus: “I’m holding on too tight now, I’m trying not to breakdown.” With dueling country guitars, a jumpin’ jivin’ upright bass, and garbage can percussions, “Let Go (Breakdown)” is busy as hell but the desperate hook, tornado harmonies, and rhythmic bassline holds all the clatter together to deliver To Dust’s no-brainer smash single. Keeping to the leather mini-skirt days, Alice Russell mines the Private Dancer version of Tina Turner on the moody “Different” and Diana Ross in her RCA years for “I Loved You,” a declarative power anthem you would swear was a cover it rings so familiar, but isn’t. With both “Different” and “I Loved You,” Juke again bedazzles the infectious Reagan era arrangements with modern electronica production techniques but manages to keep both tracks’ soul-pop leanings.
“Citizen” and “For A While” are two least interesting songs in Juke and Russell’s efforts to drag the classic sounds of yore screaming into modern times, both having the feel of experimental filler. Editing them would have lent greatly to a more cohesive and entertaining listening experience. While marvelously musical, Russell’s arrangements don’t lend these songs to start-to-finish must-listens, thanks to some uninspiring melodies on the verses. Repeatedly, it’s the memorable hooks, powerful leads and brassy gospel harmonies that readily prevent one from noticing that the verse melodies aren’t exactly slamdunks. With notable exceptions, like “A to Z” (which is really a hook from beginning to end), “I Loved You,” “Let Go (Breakdown), and “Heartbreaker Pt 2,” too many of the meandering melodic verses fail to drive the listener to Russell’s killing choruses much less compel memorization. In such a low-attention span culture, keeping the listener invested on the road to each song’s payoff is necessary when striving for commercial appeal, which To Dust is seeking to do without question. Nonetheless, for those willing to commit and spend time exploring all the gadgets of this Great Space Coaster ride through music history, Russell and Juke’s adventurousness will make you glad to live in a time when the old can be remade to be this enjoyably fun and fresh—and you this young and hip—again. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson