Marcell and the Truth - Symbols (2009)

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    I come to this review biased. You see, I love good soul music. So, when an artist delivers quality soul music the way Marcell and The Truth (M&TT) does on their self-produced sophomore project, Symbols, I just want to shout it from the rafters: Cop This Shhhh Now! Lyrical leaps above where the Baltimore band was on their languidly beautiful debut, Hopes Too High, frontman Marcell Russell pens a title track best defined as the decade's most introspective challenge to American values that soul music has delivered since Harold Melvin's "Wake Up Everybody" or Stevie Wonder's "Village Ghetto  Land." The 6'4" tower of power is at the height of his songwriting and arranging game with a groove band matching him moment for moment throughout twelve-tracks  mastered by the legendary Bob Power.
    I come to this review biased. You see, I love good soul music. So, when an artist delivers quality soul music the way Marcell and The Truth (M&TT) does on their self-produced sophomore project, Symbols, I just want to shout it from the rafters: Cop This Shhhh Now! Lyrical leaps above where the Baltimore band was on their languidly beautiful debut, Hopes Too High, frontman Marcell Russell pens a title track best defined as the decade's most introspective challenge to American values that soul music has delivered since Harold Melvin's "Wake Up Everybody" or Stevie Wonder's "Village Ghetto  Land." The 6'4" tower of power is at the height of his songwriting and arranging game with a groove band matching him moment for moment throughout twelve-tracks  mastered by the legendary Bob Power. Still bringing just enough real love for their stepper-set fans to hand dance to, M&TT aims higher with songs that are at times philosophical, spiritual and often revelatory. M&TT songs expose slice-of-life struggles to maintain family, self-love, and healthy relationships when so many cultural and socio-economic challenges are pulling on those life-sustaining threads. If their songs are gifts, the balm of Russell's singular voice represents a band celebrating abundance.

    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