CD: James Morrison, Undiscovered


If you believe the current waves of Jools Holland and Radio 2-endorsed hype then a) you should be getting very excited about James Morrison and b) Chuck D clearly taught you nothing. Morrison's record company are aggressively marketing the 21-year-old as a "raw", "honest" talent; a young, white, soul singer-songwriter who scorns the notion of celebrity and who turned to music to help him deal with a terrible childhood (drunken father, neglectful mother, serious illness and friends lost to drugs).

Having grown up in various English backwaters listening to Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd and Nirvana, Morrison apparently got his big break shortly after he was sacked from a job cleaning vans in Derby, when David Gray's former A&R man obtained a demo CD and was impressed by Morrison's powerful soul voice. Before long, Morrison found himself signed to Polydor, and working with producer Martin Terefe. At this point, we're told, Morrison decided he didn't want to perform other people's songs because he wouldn't mean them, instead writing all 13 of his debut album's tracks himself.

Aside from scrawling "4 Real" across the promo CD in Morrison's blood, it's difficult to know how Polydor could have further hammered home their "James Morrison: he's jolly authentic" message. It seems the label are doing their best to deflect the inevitable James Blunt comparisons by assuring us that, unlike Captain Blunty, Morrison isn't posh, writes his own songs and hasn't got his sights set on such vulgar concerns as global pop success. Instead they paint a romantic, slightly hackneyed picture of a troubled musician who makes music because it's the only way to channel his intense, heart-wrenching emotions.

Unfortunately, the album doesn't even come close to matching the story. Undiscovered is a record of expensive-sounding soul-pop that's been polished and preened to the point where it has precious little soul left. Tracks like the bittersweet Wonderful World and the soft-centred If the Rain Must Fall have the snagging melodies to follow current single You Give Me Something into the Top 10, but there's something horribly anodyne, controlled and insipid about the whole affair. The Lighthouse Family repeatedly spring to mind.

Lyrically too, the album is a disappointment. While we're led to expect gritty, vivid tales about Morrison's troubled life, Undiscovered is characterised by bland, emotion-by-numbers sentiments. A detailed look at the album's credits tells a rather different story to the one spun by the label. Polydor employed a small army of producers/songwriters with somewhat less credible names than Terefe's (who has produced KT Tunstall, Ed Harcourt and Ron Sexsmith) on their CVs. In fact, Undiscovered's co-writers have also written for Atomic Kitten, Five, Girls Aloud, Busted, Ronan Keating, Kylie, Victoria Beckham and Westlife. Oh, and James Blunt. Having not actually penned a single song on his own, Morrison clearly wasn't quite so averse to performing material written by other people after all.

Of course, record labels have been embellishing their artists' stories as long as record labels have existed. But what's depressing is that one thing about Morrison is irrefutably true: he's got an absolute belter of a voice. His rich, expressive rasp is an instrument of power, warmth and depth that's worthy of comparison to Otis Redding and Al Green (well, if you throw in a cupful of Paul Young and a dash of Terence Trent D'Arby).

It's disappointing, then, that rather than afford Morrison the space to develop his talent, Polydor seem to have called up everyone in the Chart Songwriters section of their Yellow Pages and instructed them to lead Morrison down the big-bucks aisle marked "mum rock".

Some eye-opening industry facts released earlier this year revealed that a quarter of all albums are now sold in supermarkets, that over 40s now spend more on music than under 30s and that women over 49 buy nearly twice as many albums as those under 20. As Radio 2 would tell you, middle-aged mums are now a hugely important market. Hence James Blunt. Hence Il Divo. Hence a recent compilation called Housework Songs that's shifted well over half a million copies. And hence Polydor's apparent decision to guide James Morrison in a direction that should ensure his album sells by the trolley-load, but which fails to do his ability justice.

The album does offer one glimpse of what might have been. Call the Police is everything the rest of Undiscovered isn't: edgy, vital and unrestrained. Morrison lets go, unleashing a thrilling performance that builds to the utterly atypical chorus lyric of: "Call the police, 'cos I've lost control and I really wanna see you bleed." (Surely enough to distract anyone from their ironing.)

We can only hope that when, during Call the Police, the young singer spits the lines, "I can't do nothing if I can't do something my way/ I must be crazy if I follow every word you say," he's learning to rail against the people who've guided him. Because, ultimately, they've ensured that Morrison's debut album is a missed opportunity.


Chris Salmon

The GuardianTramp

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