Alice Smith likes to exploit the distance between her delivery and the content of what she’s singing, the musical setting and the sentiments expressed. She’ll shower praise on a lover in what sounds like a heartbroken ballad, or sing about her happiness as if she’s battling for her life. You can’t take her at face value.
Smith’s first album, For Lovers, Dreamers & Me, came out seven years ago—an eternity in the world of pop. That album was well received and Smith’s distinctive voice and grounding in pop and R&B earned comparisons to Norah Jones and Alicia Keys. But for whatever reason, Smith dropped off the map for a while, starting a family and switching her home base from the east coast to the west.
On her new album, She, Smith still draws from the worlds of funk, soul, bluesy jazz, and reggae, without explicitly endorsing any of them. “Another Love” starts like a more ornate “Benny And The Jets” with busy strings, while “Be Easy” pairs a cinematic, sweeping chorus with military-sounding drum rolls. “Loyalty” is a 6/8 soul ballad, and “Fool For You” rides the same eight-note keyboard line, but adds little explosions of bass and a fiery Smith.
And despite her long hiatus, Smith still plays hard to get, teasing her listeners lyrically. When she sings in “Ocean,” “You seem to me to be a hell of a man/ A pleasure and a joy” she doesn’t sound the least bit pleased, and the instrumentation is pitted at the level of pain and regret (until the hook). Similarly, when she declares everlasting love later during the Cee-lo cover “Fool For You”—“Oh baby. . . I ain’t got no more pride/ Sweet sugar, I surrender, I don’t want no other man”—there’s no sugar in sight. She sounds like she’s in a struggle with the devil, and every instrument is tense and coiled. The guitar unleashes a solo over Smith’s wailing and the whole thing sounds tragic. But she’s celebrating, even if it means imprisonment.
Smith’s also remarkably adept at issuing threats, giving her music a rare edge relative to other singers who work with the same musical forms. “Where are you going with your life/ What kind of chances will you take,” Smith sings to start the album; it’s a big question to kick things off, and there is barely concealed menace in the terse beat. Don’t take the wrong chances, she seems to say. She often starts singing evenly—lulling you into a sense of peace—but then ramps up her vocals and shatters the tranquility. Requests like, “I’m not the one to play with, don’t you play,” or “Don’t take for granted my loyalty/ Don’t be so shady,” could be pleas for affection. But in Smith’s hands, they are also warnings.
Although “With You” mistakes grandeur for impact, most of the time, Smith’s pop instincts don’t fail her. “The One” is a lesson in layering and building, starting with low creeping keyboard and a flute, adding a bludgeoning bass, then cracking percussion. Soon Smith is belting “I’m not the one,” and it’s the stuff of the top 40 in the hands of a better-known, better-marketed, or better-connected singer. (Smith’s husband is Citizen Cope, who was all over the radio when I was in high school, but maybe he lost his contacts. Also, is his real name Smith? If so, his musical name should definitely be Citizen Smith.)
Ms. Smith could have played it safe on her come back. She’s got the pipes for a straightforward throwback soul album in the mode of Sharon Jones, or a collection of soft jazz and pop in the mode of the singers she was lumped with when she debuted—Norah Jones, or more recently, Corinne Bailey Rae. She could’ve pulled a Justin Timberlake (his last album before The 20/20 Experience also came out in 2006), and remerged with a faithfully recreated and fairly lifeless version of her previous work. But instead, Smith injects her sound with contrast and menace to give it new life. Hopefully she doesn’t take seven more years to make another album.