A pair of big voices on Friday | Bleader

A pair of big voices on Friday

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Two big-voiced singers descend on Chicago Friday night. Alice Russell, who plays at Schubas, is British, and Shemekia Copeland (pictured), who performs at the Old Town School, is from northern New Jersey, but both of them traffic in American roots and soul music.

Russell first made her mark in UK neosoul circles, working with acts like Massive Attack and Quantic, but since the release of her recent second solo album, Pot of Gold (Six Degrees), she's been seen as part of the new school of young English soul belters, along with Adele, Duffy, and, natch, Amy Winehouse. With its fleshed-out arrangements and classic soul-factory models--some Motown here, some Stax there--the record definitely sounds more like Winehouse (who seems down for the count) than those other two. Russell is a much better singer than Adele and Duffy, both of whom too often confuse mannerism with expressiveness, and she writes most of her own material. The tunes don't always stick in your head, but they do serve her muscular pipes well; a song like "Got the Hunger?," with its skeletal melodic material, isn't trying to be anything but an excuse for her to stretch out and riff on it. That said, she fails to bring anything meaningful to Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," turning in an overwrought version that just proves Cee-Lo is the more nuanced and effective singer.

Shemekia Copeland, daughter of the great bluesman Johnny Copeland, came out of the moribund contemporary blues scene and started making records for Alligator when she was just 19. Right from the beginning she stood out as a special talent, but I thought the stale production style of those Alligator releases held her back. Her new Never Going Back (Telarc) isn't perfect, but she's taking steps in a more fruitful, compelling direction, giving her amazing voice more room to move. The album was produced by Oliver Wood of the Wood Brothers, and it occupies a somewhat nebulous space between the blues, country, and rock. Copeland nails Buddy and Julie Miller's "Dirty Water," brings an impressive lightness of touch to Joni Mitchell's "Black Crow," and imbues her take on the Percy Mayfield classic "River's Invitation" with all the necessary gravitas. The album's sound has a touch of the highbrow politesse that seems required to appeal to today's NPR listeners, but it doesn't affect Copeland's outsize voice. Here's hoping the live show is less genteel than the recording.

Today's playlist:

Jazzmob, Flashback (Jazzaway)
Stephanie McKay, Tell It Like It Is (MOI/McKay)
Lee Morgan, The Cooker (Blue Note)
Yitzhak Yedid, Suite in Five Movements (Between the Lines)
Alex Heitlinger, The Daily Life of Uncle Roger (self-released)

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