You're probably thinking to yourself right about now something like "just what the world needs, another white, British, blue eyed soulboy from England." You'd be entirely justified to think such a thing too. I know I sure as hell did when I first read about James Morrison, the latest in a seemingly endless line of "next big things" to come from across the pond.
So it's easy — natural even — to be a bit skeptical.
The thing is, there's just something different about James Morrison. Undiscovered isn't, by any means, the album destined to change music like many people would have you believe. But there is an instantly familiar quality about Morrison's voice that's hard to really put a finger on. He sounds like about a million other great singers that I could think of, but not a single one I could actually name. Not only does he sound like someone who's been doing this far longer than his twenty one years on this earth, but someone whose voice has, in fact, always been with us.
The other thing about this record is there are just so many great songs on it. There's really not a clunker in the bunch. The opening track, "Under The Influence" recalls John Barleycorn era Traffic with it's breezy, bluesy vibe. "Wonderful World" finds Morrison doing his own sort of uptake on the Sam Cooke classic, with lines like "It's a wonderful world, but I can't feel it right now" sung in the world weary sort of voice that once again betrays his mere 21 years.
But again, it all comes back down to Morrison's voice. On a surface level, it does bare some resemblance to other British R & B singers from Paul Young to the more "adult" leanings of someone like George Michael. But there are rougher edges here which balance out the smoother tendencies of those singers. The closest thing I could really compare Morrison to is somebody like Terrence Trent Darby (remember him?), but with a touch of R & B smoothness (like the aforementioned Sam Cooke) thrown in there for good measure. In fact, the track "If The Rain Must Fall" sounds like nothing so much as a slowed version of Darby's "Wishing Well," but with more of a bluesy feel to it.
The musical pedigree also seems to come from all the right influences. You hear a touch of Blonde On Blonde era Dylan organ in the title track, which just as quickly switches itself up to a more churchy gospel sound. On "The Pieces Don't Fit Here Anymore," the vocal builds on a sort of tension that recalls the best of the Stax Records era of recordings, albeit with a bit more subtlety. On "Call The Police" Morrison takes on more rock oriented fare, with his voice displaying equal parts anger and pain in such a way that it approaches Joe Cocker territory. So there's not a lot of anything "modern" sounding to be found here.
Probably the single most distinctive thing about Morrison's voice is that there is an ever-present hint of a rasp there (said to be the product of a childhood bout with whooping cough which nearly killed him). But the rasp is never overpowering in the Rod Stewart sort of sense. As I've already said, there is also an instantly familiar quality.
Morrison's songs also run the gamut emotionally. On "This Boy," a song said to be inspired by his difficult childhood, you can hear the painful memories in lines like "the more I forget, the more I know — it's time to let this go." On another track he sings about "The Letter" and his reluctance to open it knowing the pain waiting inside. "It's got my name on it, and it's waiting there just for me," Morrison sings in a voice aching with regret.
Morrison has of course already taken much of the rest of the world by storm. And with Undiscovered, it's a fair bet he won't remain that way for long here in America.
Just don't call him Jim.