Why don't we start with the bounties of this road trip, eh? There are plenty to note on Just Up The Road. When Melissa Young's music is "on" it's a leisurely stroll on a golden day; it feels that good. The opening tune, "Rock With Me", immediately sets the mood of a silk scarf draped over a boudoir lamp. The tune's teasing guitar chords and classic bassline showcase musicians successfully evoking the stepper's set seductive mood. Here Ms. Young produces a timeless lyric that is tender, tentative and universal for grown folks struggling through first date sexual decisions. She hits it out of the ball park again with the inspirational title track "Just Up The Road." The tune sports an endearing duet with her father, whose well-laid vocals surprisingly sound like the grits and gravy Ron Isley readily dished out back in the day. Funky bass guitar and hot chocolate harmonies accompany Ms. Young's arched back declarations about her "Mr. Shonuff" fan-waving sexual appeal. On these tunes, Ms. Young is a striking, fun-loving figure who enthralls. Speaking of declarations, set against a stunning backdrop of horns, organ flashes and saucy backing vocals, Melissa's no-nonsense delivery of "Just A Girl" is the ultimate "take me as I am or move the hell on" ode to self-love. The 11 "roadsters" occasionally need buffing on a few track mixes, however Melissa with fellow producer H-Storm do solidly blend a wax-shine of electronic music with live instrumentation through most of Just Up The Road.
It is with the deceptive "It's About You", an infectious two-step bop, Ms, Young switches the content up on us from sun rays to cloudy skies, but you may not initially notice. On "It's About You," Cissy Houston-ish high notes open our hearts, warm music ala the Staple Singers' Let's Do It Again" keeps us grooving, the whole family picnic residue cloaks the bait and switch and begins the lyrical spiral and calculated handling of listeners, detouring Just Up The Road to proverbial circular paths.
Whether it is the Staple Singers, Aretha Franklin or Donny Hathaway, too often Ms. Young displays a love for the lyrical clichÃ© and musically familiar. Lyrics like "tip-toeing through my mind", "life ain't been no crystal stair," "pictures fade from my mind" and "hell and high water" are but a few of cribbed phrases littering the roads Ms. Young directs us to, most painfully in the woefully under-produced "Be There." "Silver Buttons," a song that attempts storytelling depth, has the misfortune of sounding too much like unrealized slam poetry spouted at the local hipster lounge. This is a needless and regrettable development since Ms. Young does exhibit a knack for songwriting on parts of Just Up The Road.
"Stay", "Funny", "Chinese Torture" and "You'll Never Know" each parade sparks of wit and better craftsmanship, particularly the superior storytelling in "Stay." Still Just Up The Road is hampered by one too many songs about how bad this doomed relationship was and yet how the woman can't seem to move on from it. Viewed collectively even the most poetic of these songs unintentionally move listeners from empathy to disdain to finally joining a search party seeking the vibrancy Ms. Young introduced us to on "Rock With You" and the backbone that crumbled after "Mr. Shonuff." On a songstress album it's rare one considers that the "no-good" man got out of this deal in the nick of time.
The indigo tune "You'll Never Know" is indicative of the album's flaws and sparkle. A clairvoyant song predicting the bad relationship karma an "ex" is sure to experience for doing Ms. Young wrong. While well-executed, the lyrics of the song are clichÃ© and it's unsettling, too frequent references to Donny Hathaway's "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know" feel manipulative of the listener's musical memory. Simultaneously-if I block-out the highly recognizable reference-I care about "You'll Never Know" because of Melissa's frayed around the edges delivery, where the true heart of this song lies. Here a transparent Melissa gives an honest, less than pristine vocal bold in its lack of self-consciousness. When I reflect on this promising debut, I find myself wishing Ms. Young trusted her originality more, there is much there on which to rely. When she trusts her voice less encumbered by the sister ancestors of 70's soul, I'll gladly take another trip up any road Melissa leads me.
By L. Michael Gipson