Along with throwbacks to 80’s synth pop, old school soul has popped up in the work of a few dozen singer/songwriters. Many of them pull off this feel successfully, like Norah Jones. Sadly, if her Help Me! Help Me! EP is any indication, Lucy Schwartz will not be one of those success stories.
The journey through the five songs of her latest release feels far longer than it should. The Californian singer isn’t able to get most of the songs on her EP across as anything more than plodding, cookie-cutter segments from the Book of Soul. Her personality doesn’t come through at all, leaving the listeners with some catchy, familiar bits, instead of a fresh, exciting whole.
The opening two songs are the worst offenders of the bunch, with poor production and understated vocals smothering the best parts. Both the title track and “Those Days” suffer from lead foot syndrome. The drums are simply too loud and placed too much in front of the mix, resulting in the beat drowning out the delicate piano arrangements for the former and the acoustic guitar of the latter. This could have been overcome if Schwartz’s singing was strong enough, but it’s not. This isn’t to say she has a bad voice. It just doesn’t have any emotional resonance. It’s far too even, leading to questions whether she’s happy or sad on several tracks.
The instrumentation is done pretty well for the most part, with a jazzy piano and a horn section appearing on “Help Me! Help Me!” and a stop/start guitar driven chorus of “Those Days”. However, there are some errors in her judgment too. For example, the harmonica in “Those Days” with the soul style of singing Schwartz is going for. It pulls the track in the opposite direction of where it should be going and sounds like it was awkwardly forced into the song.
Besides these problems, another huge mistake on Schwartz’s part is her cover of Otis Reading/Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”. This song really wasn’t calling for an acoustic, way-slowed-down cover. Ending the EP with this song makes it look like Schwartz is trying way to hard to show that she belongs in the pantheon of soul by paying tribute to Queen Aretha.
While most of it is highly flawed, Schwartz does pull off a couple good songs in the middle. Both “Gravity” and “Gone Away” are simply piano ballads that strip away any other instrumentation. The mix of multiple backing vocals in the chorus of “Gravity” is the best thing on the album, showing a sense of liveliness that was missing on the other songs. Meanwhile, “Gone Away” brings fragility to Schwartz voice, adding that emotional spectrum that soul needs.
Sadly, while these tracks are an improvement, they only highlight everything that’s wrong with the album. Help Me! Help Me! sounds like someone trying too hard to fit into a style of music rather than letting it come naturally. This EP can serve as a warning and as further proof to artists that there’s no much thing as a how-to guide for soul music.