Q: She's 16 and British, what can she possibly know about singing vintage American soul music? A: Enough to make you squirm, get off your ass, and dance close with anybody who'll have you. Joss Stone is a young woman who, if you believe the story, was about to record her wannabe pop smash debut and then be well on her way to becoming the next Britney/Christina. Then she heard some vintage American Miami soul made by the likes of Latimore, Little Beaver, Betty Wright, Timmy Thomas, and the like, and genuine inspiration took hold. The result of all this career changing (or diva postponement) is The Soul Sessions, a collection of ten badass soul classics recorded with all of the above folks -- soul princess Betty Wright and S-Curve's Steve Greenberg produced almost all of it in Miami, though a pair of tracks were recorded in New York with R&B wunderkind Mike Mangini and a souled-out cover of the White Stripes "Fell in Love With a Boy," guided by the Roots' ?uestlove (Ahmir Thompson) on the modern tip, was cut in Philly. These jams drip honey sweet and hard with tough, sexy soul, and Stone's voice is larger than life. It's true she's been tutored and mentored by Wright and her musical collaborators in the science of groove, but she keeps it raw enough to be real. Her reading of Harlan Howard's "The Chokin' Kind" reveals that it should have been an R&B tune all along -- check out Little Beaver's (Willie Hale) guitar solo. Her reading of Bobby Miller's "Dirty Man," a track associated with Wright, is gutsy and completely believable, and the interplay between Latimore's piano and Beaver's funky, shimmering guitaristry brings Stone's vocal down to street level.
For a woman as young as Stone to tackle Carla Thomas' "I've Fallen in Love With You" and Aretha Franklin's "All the King's Horses," not to mention John Ellison's nugget "Some Kind of Wonderful," takes guts, chops, or a genuine delusional personality to pull off. Stone has the former two. She has unique phrasing and a huge voice that accents, dips, and slips, never overworking a song or trying to bring attention to itself via hollow acrobatics. The strings and funky backbeat provided by Thompson on "I've Fallen in Love With You" are chilling in the way they prod Stone to just spill a need out of her heart that one would believe would be beyond her years. And speaking of Thompson, his production of the Stripes tune is more than remarkable; it conveys Jack White's intent but in an entirely new language. The set closes with Stone's radical reread of the Isleys' "For the Love of You," a daunting and audacious task. The way she tackles this song, prodded only by Angelo Morris' keyboard whispering alongside her, is far from reverential, but it is true, accurate, moving, and stunningly -- even heartbreakingly -- beautiful. This is a debut that, along with those fine practitioners in the nu-soul underground such as Peven Everett, Julie Dexter, Yas-rah, Fertile Ground, and a few others, is solid proof that soul is alive and well. And perhaps, given her youth and stunning looks, the perverse star-making machinery will use this unusual entry into the marketplace to reinvestigate the wonders of timeless depth and vision inherent in soul and R&B that are far from exhausted, as this record so convincingly proves.