Sarah Joyce would likely be the first to point out the inaccuracy of any ‘overnight sensation’ tag. It took a decade of singing in folk bands and performing on the acoustic circuit before she was spotted by TV composer Steve Brown and eventually signed to Atlantic. But her rise to prominence has, to the public at large, been a rather sudden one. Bolstered by surprisingly giddy mainstream press reviews, effusive with praise, Seasons Of My Soul rocketed into the charts on the back of a pair of sizeable Radio 2 hits, ‘Aretha’ and ‘Slow’.
Advance word of a ‘60s influence, the one-word stage name, the collaboration with a noted producer – so far, so Duffy. Even the cover is Rockferry-a-like. But beyond that, Joyce’s rich, chocolatey voice is much closer to the Karen Carpenter mould, sometimes disarmingly so, and she even manages (puzzlingly at times) a transatlantic pronunciation style. And in terms of mood and atmosphere, she bears comparison with the likes of Norah Jones and Diana Krall – the recordings classy, cool and refined, if a little devoid of personality or spark.
At times the album veers into pastiche; opener ‘Am I Forgiven?’ makes for a wonderfully airy mid-tempo introduction that sounds great on the surface but oozes the ‘60s from every pore in a way that makes you wonder whether there was any intention of bringing something new to the table at all. Many of the songs follow a similar template with softly-brushed drums and prominent tambourine, the distinctively ‘60s retro guitar style, slow-paced Bacharach-influenced melodies, and the juxtaposition of horns and strings. It’s all uniformly tasteful and well executed, and doesn’t try to update the sound.
If we’re talking the ‘seasons’ of the title, the album mostly takes on an autumnal or wintry hue, with just a few songs reflecting a sunnier vibe – ‘Come To Me High’ is a sensual slow-mover with hushed backing vocals and low-mixed piano that evokes a lazy summer afternoon feeling. ‘Thankful’, a narrative poem based on a piano melody, seems to take the listener through all four seasons, while ‘Healer’ has a soulful, hymnal gospel feel. Other songs – including the slinky single ‘Slow’ and lyrically inventive ‘Aretha’ – are all about the mood conveyed by Joyce’s voice, which is a gorgeous, effortless instrument and thankfully more about its rich, velvety tone than any attempt to dazzle with warbling histrionics.
Joyce has said that she intended the album to work on two levels – as a background listen, it succeeds. It’s easygoing and softly melodic; you won’t be wowed by unusual chord progressions or inventive arrangements, but you can rest assured that it will provide a smooth, mature listen. But as a singer-songwriter album in the style of Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, two women Joyce has cited as inspirations, it is severely lacking in anything close to the originality and verve of those two trailblazers. Still, it’s an elegant attempt that rewards repeated listens. Let’s just hope that Joyce can break out of her mould and do something more original and creative next time.
[Atlantic; November 1, 2010]