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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Right to sing the blues? Not yet

Joss Stone's youthful optimism makes for great pop. But, short on feeling, she falters in her slower, darker numbers.

August 29, 2007|Mikael Wood | Special to The Times

Thanks to a headstrong new album that finally proves Joss Stone can do more than mimic African American women three times her age, 2007 was supposed to be the 20-year-old English soul singer's year. Unfortunately for Stone, nobody told Amy Winehouse, whose "Back to Black" has handily displaced "Introducing Joss Stone" as the U.K. R&B disc of the moment.

Monday at the Greek Theatre -- headlining a solid triple bill that also included newcomer Ryan Shaw and Raphael Saadiq -- Stone demonstrated the differences between herself and Winehouse, and the result raised age-old questions about the role of hardship in the creation of great art.

If you believe the tabloids (or perhaps your own eyes), Winehouse leads a life of romantic tumult and chemical dependence, which lends her tortured love songs a believability you don't often find in the sort of retro-formalist stuff that gets record nerds excited.

In contrast, Stone appears happy, healthy and well-adjusted; at the Greek, she couldn't stop flashing her 1,000-watt smile. On "Introducing," Stone's youthful optimism fuels the up-tempo numbers, such as "Girl They Won't Believe It," a delirious glam-soul shuffle in which the singer describes "a world where the sun's even shining inside." She opened her 80-minute set Monday with that tune, riding her 10-piece band's deep-pile groove like a brand-new sports car.

Yet when she changed gears to slower, darker material, Stone faltered. "Victim of a Foolish Heart," an old Bettye Swann song from Stone's 2003 debut, "The Soul Sessions," sounded soggy and listless, while "Bruised but Not Broken" was long on technique but short on feeling.

As a performer, Stone has matured tremendously since she began playing shows a few years ago; no longer does she seem like an awkward teenager onstage. But she does come off as a young woman, one in the throes of the sexual discovery that pop was invented to soundtrack. Compared with Winehouse's old-soul tribulations, that might be a circumstance worth celebrating.

In his 30-minute opening set, Shaw almost did enough celebrating to make up for Stone's missteps. "My message is love, love, love," the 26-year-old Georgia native announced. It was a claim backed up by his stripped-down, high-energy R&B, which sounded like it could've been transported to the Greek via time machine from 1963.

Saadiq was in a good mood too, though he had more than vintage vibes on his mind. Like Prince, whose multitasking abilities Saadiq openly emulates, this writer-producer-performer (a former member of Tony! Toni! Toné! as well as Stone's producer) makes futuristic soul music that still seems old-school. The highlight of his set was a medley of hits he's written for other artists, including D'Angelo's "Untitled (How Does It Feel)," which drew big cheers from the R&B-attuned audience. Is hardship a part of Saadiq's great art? Could be: "Some of these people never paid me," he said, reclaiming his songs as collateral.

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