Joss Stone, "Colour Me Free" (Virgin) [2 out of 4 STARS]

October 21, 2009


When British ingénue Joss Stone first hit the music scene, she was a welcome change of pace from the many other teen pop princesses. For one, she actually could sing, with a smoky, soulful voice that belied her age. For another, she showed a genuine affinity for old-school R&B, even as the producers of her first two albums, "The Soul Sessions" (2003) and "Mind, Body & Soul" (2004), did their best to obscure it with an overly pristine sound pandering to commercial gloss.

Like so many of her peers, however--see also: Avril Lavigne and Kelly Clarkson--the now 22-year-old Stone began to buck against the system that had fostered her, and her frustrations are given full voice on her fourth studio effort, which she claims to have written and recorded in about a week in her native Devon. The controversial cover art depicts her crammed into a cage with limbs numbered like the cuts on a chart in a butcher's shop, while the first single, "Free Me," spells out her gripes with her music-industry oppressors. "Don't tell me that I won't/I will," she sings with throaty defiance. "Don't tell me that I'm not/I am/Don't tell me that my master plan/Ain't coming through."

Noble sentiments, to be sure, but the problem is that Stone doesn't really have a master plan, or the discerning ear to tell her best moments (the more fiery, up-tempo, Aretha-lite grooves) from her worst (the schlocky slow jams, the worst of which, a dreadful cover of the Nat King Cole standard "L-O-V-E," thankfully was cut from the American edition of this album). She inexplicably reteams with two of the producers, Jonathan Shorten and Connor Reeves, responsible for her earlier, watered-down sounds; she trots out the pointless celebrity cameos (Jeff Beck, Sheila E., Nas and David Sanborn, though Raphael Saadiq is a welcome presence), and most of all, she seems more than a bit hypocritical railing against the system while remaining in its ranks and issuing this disc as yet another exclusive corporate commodity, available only through Target and iTunes.