If there is a vocalist today who comes closest to nailing the essence of Luther Vandross, it's Marcell Russell. Never ostentatious or obvious, Russell breezily sings in an airy tenor and rolling baritone with a technical ear for difficult and unusual flourishes that sound easy to the ear, but will trip up many a seasoned singer attempting replication. A You Tube video of Russell belting an accapella version of Leon Russell's "A Song for You" demonstrates how cavernously his bellicose instrument can blow. However, on Symbols Russell smartly avoids allowing his ego to get in the way of the substantive material, Katoriae and Crystal Brown's Wonderlove harmonies, and intricate solo forays of fellow band members Charles "Cj" Bennett Jr., Gerald "Mamidi" Victory, Gerald "Fingas" Richardson, Austin "Lightskin" Caughlin, and Michael "Mike Check" Mackey. High notes and punctuating moments are present but spare, saved for the price of a fan ticket to their forthcoming international tour. Yet, the understated album leaves you full.
It seems years of trial, error, and industry observance has salted Russell well enough to know that, in the end, career endurance is about the song. So, it helps that M&TT birth classics the way infatuation junkies breathe love. Reminiscent of the mid-career funk of Rufus and the sweetness of Bread, songs like "It's Kinda Like" and "All I Know" bring back bare shoulder shimmies and doo wop backdrops to foreground stories of sun-warmed working class courtship. Tip-toeing into Nickelback territory, M& TT competently delves into acoustic soft rock with "Wish You Were Here," while "Greatest Love" has the Stuart Matthewman feel of 80s Sade, a contrast that kicks down any boxes critics ever tried to place around M&TT's range. Male interiors of longing and devotion are mined for a trio of potential hit radio singles: "Can't Wait," "Just To Be Loved," and a personal fave, "Whole Again." In light of the rough times and our renewed itch to get lost in dance, the band also kicks up the groove notch with house cut "Lost In The Moment" and rock/dance hybrid, "Seed Your Water." .
Still, the weight of Symbols comes in its lyrics. References to God are minimal, but Christian-tinged spirituality and universal messages about the need for self-reflection and morals and values that breed love are seeded throughout songs like "Seed Your Water," "Symbols," and "Somewhere In Between." On these inspirational lessons, Russell returns to his teaching days as a roaming music minister delivering sermons up and down the Maryland coast, only now his philosophizing lacks the pious judgments that kept many at bay from Russell's needed message. "Seed...," provides a hearty soundtrack for partying in times of paucity, while the balance encouraged by the infectious "Somewhere In Between" could be described as Who Moved My Cheese? placed to music, only catchier.
Yet, all the fulfilling lyrics of Symbols pale in comparison to the brilliant title track which both challenges and questions our cultural obsession with raising high the televised, metaphoric appearance of things, rather than extolling and striving toward the substance of things, the honest fruits of a moderate life. In cry and vamp, Russell doesn't shy away from expressing the spiritual and familial costs of those "living for symbols" and the soul-numbing reward of such short-sightedness. That he can make a medicinal rebuke like "Symbols" go down with the ease of honey elevates Marcell and The Truth's artistry to that of the geniuses soul lost for a time, but are now reclaiming with humbly brilliant projects like Symbols. Highly recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson