Despite the protestations of countless wanabees across the world who all want their MTV, (or whatever the kids say now) being a musician is tough work. It’s difficult to tell if it’s harder in one genre than another but James Brown certainly had an opinion. The hardest working man in show business no doubt sweated his way through a pretty terrific career so maybe we can agree that soul is fairly tough – especially when it’s in competition with faux-soul pop music back by big bucks and gyrating bottoms. Enter Erin Costelo and her new album Down Below the Status Quo; a soul treat that smacks of toil without the pesky PR machine or MTV veneer.
As heavily influenced as this is, it shouldn’t be mistaken for a run-of-the-mill soul record: ten 3-minute laments and uplifting gospel choirs wrapped in tight brass sections and an emphasis on the rhythm section. This is a touch more experimental than that, a touch more searchingly personal, a touch more, well, Canadian. The Nova Scotian has taken the expectations of soul music, and without wrangling it into something unrecognisable and derivative, she has crafted some comfortably recognisable yet often surprising moments of exquisite soul-food music.
Her voice is powerful and expressive, if not always a shining paragon of clarity or nuance, whilst the band is tight enough though sometimes lacking the total depth of production required of such a demanding form. There are echoes of jazz on tracks like Low, a pleasing counterpoint to the rest, whilst a slower acoustic vibe is found in the opening of Turn it On with a subtle backing vocal bringing the whole thing together with a light touch that matches the reflective lyrics, before the bass drum brings in more meat, without losing the epic sense of space that makes this an original and almost ethereal piece of music. This is followed by a lovely, simple piano piece called Quiet the Bombs which cements this album as one that demands another listen, even if at first it doesn’t strike the most clarion of bells. It is worth persisting, there is no doubt.
What’s left is an impression that this is a vocalist that works hard and reaps the quiet (and often meagre) reward of the jobbing musician. She clearly has a direction and a purpose whilst remaining true to the music and a quick look at her website reveals that when she’s not on a gruelling tour schedule, she’s teaching singing to aspiring future stars – surely a labour of love in deepest, whitest Canada. This is a pretty decent masterclass in making music that’s true to the self and a lot can be learned from its relatively varied and enjoyable moments though her voice, which is solid and highly competent, doesn’t necessarily demonstrate the range and nuance of other singers in the genre.