Russell Lee – Meant To Be

 Russell Lee – Meant To Be

Russell Lee – Meant To Be – Album Review

Hmmm!  Well alrighty.  For some reason, I kind of assumed we’d have a double-disc or three-part anthology here, but we got seven songs on the brand-new Russell Lee album Meant To Be.  Two of’em we’ve been checking out for a couple years now already as lead-singles, so I’m guessing this record’s been a long time in the making!  Any of you out there that have taken that long journey towards an official release or the completion of a full-album know just how much effort the process can take and how many twists & turns can pop up in between point-A & point-B – but don’t forget, you also know just how good it feels to finally get those tunes out into the world where they belong.  Let’s check this out!

Starting the album up on friendly & invitational notes, the title-track “Meant To Be” begins the new record by Russell Lee on solid ground that’s tried, tested, & true.  I originally reviewed this track back at the end of 2017 – be sure to check out my initial thoughts here.  Stands up strong over time though – “Meant To Be” had an extremely welcoming vibe when I first heard it and that still translates perfectly.  Smooth glide through this tune…he’s chosen wisely by putting this up front on the album, everyone’s on their A-game here and pumping out a pleasant vibe from every amplifier.  Notably, Curtis Church does an exceptional job with the rhythm in the bass & backing vocals along with Tom Koroluk – the harmonies on this song come out sounding great and the lead-vocals from Russell are spot-on.  Ain’t no doubt about it, it’s a sweet-intentioned tune and it hits the mark on-target…”Meant To Be” would definitely make for a solid impression if you were a first time listener to Lee’s music – and if you’re like me & you have been listening over the years, you’ll certainly welcome this song back with open arms.  It’s music for good times with sweet sentiment radiating from every pore…everyone’s got time for that.

“First Time” will go on to detail…well…that “First Time” falling in love really; there will be a whole lot of examples where different parts of being in a relationship are ‘not’ the “First Time” as well along the way, but as far as the love factor is concerned, we’re talking about a serious declaration and stamp-down of this being the official “First Time.”  Following me?  Musically it’s quite an interesting cut and really well constructed…you could argue there’s elements of Country, Bluegrass, Folk, Pop, Rock, Blues…”First Time” pretty much embraces a hybrid approach to sound, but that’ll give a song like this the crossover potential that can open doors to all kinds of new listeners.  I’m a big fan of the banjo on this cut, love the violins when they show up, the guitars are rock solid…vocals are too ultimately and the story that Russell creates is a beautiful tale of love that delivers on the sweetness of the lyrics through their combined performance as a band.  For the vast majority of these tunes, you’ll find these players & Lee on-point – it’ll never be about any kind of ‘mistakes’ being made so much as it’ll be about personal taste when it comes to Russell Lee’s music…there’s a folksiness to “First Time” that I can imagine some people out there resisting…but short of the Punk/Metal crowd, he stands a great chance of pulling listeners into this uplifting vibe.  There’s excellent energy & spirit to the sound of this song – I have no doubt that it’ll connect with a lot of people & that “First Time” completely has a solid chance of being the crowd’s favorite cut when they’re playing live from the stage as well.  I think the tale Russell’s created is a beautiful way of expressing the experience of falling in love, and the spark in his voice that you’ll find when he’s rolling through the verses as he bounces off the beat with each syllable smiling, reflects that enthusiasm, investment, & genuine interest he applies to the mic to connect the meaning to the words.

On the bright-side, “Time Of Your Life” is a cover and I don’t have to wonder why something sounds so much like the massive Green Day hit, because that’s exactly what we’ve got here.  I’ll say this…I think even Green Day knew they wrote a song that was massively universal when they stumbled into “Time Of Your Life” – it was just as much ‘not them’ as it was potentially suited for so many others out there.  An extremely adaptable song…a songwriter’s song…”Time Of Your Life” seemed so subtle, yet always spoke so strongly on behalf of the complete tightness & focus in the writing & melody.  It was surprising really; as a Green Day fan at the time, I can definitely vouch for how out of left field that hit truly was.  What’s even stranger perhaps, is the idea that Russell Lee would be out there somewhere covering a Green Day tune…so you see what’s happened here right?  Over time we’re gonna find a whole bunch of artists/bands like Lee that are gonna hijack this song back to genres where it would have been more likely to be found to begin with, rather than where it somehow ended up with the Alt-Rock/Punk-Pop crowd from such an unlikely source.  Solid accordion added in via Tom Koroluk…Brett Koroluk is as reliable as ever in this more subdued & controlled performance, but really, the dude’s always on beat & right on time, so no surprises there.  And ultimately…no huge surprise that this cover works out well for Russell Lee and his crew of musical cohorts…like I was saying, I think “Time Of Your Life” is one of those remarkable tunes that’d almost be impossible to murder…in fact, it might take much more of an effort to taint the beauty in that song than it would be to adhere to it.  So naturally, almost by default, “Time Of Your Life” comes out as a strong win for Russell, but make no mistake, it certainly suits this particular style/sound he brings to the music he makes…that organic wisdom in his voice is an excellent pairing for the words of this Green Day megahit…I think people out there will have no problem digging this cover.

Picture” would date back the farthest for me as far as my own personal experience with Russell’s music is concerned…I got the opportunity to check that out for the first time back in 2016.  Even with the new tunes and the cover that I’ve heard to this point on the record, I’d still hang “Picture” as a cut above the rest – I still believe in this song and think that Lee’s written an extremely timeless tune when it comes to this lead-single from Meant To Be.  Definitely the song I’d have been putting out there to pull people in as well – and he’s chosen extremely wisely in doing so; with the steady promotion that’s taken place in behind the scenes throughout the journey towards this official full-album release, the video for “Picture” has already received well over a million views out there on YouTube.  There is still a song to come on this record that I think can potentially rival this single-worthy track from Russell’s catalog – but ever since I heard this song for the first time, I could certainly hear the skillful songwriting Lee was capable of.  “Picture” is a great song on so many levels…from the performance to the production, all that’s great – but it works even as a metaphor you’ll find – “Picture” could very well be the best snapshot glimpse of what Russell Lee & his band are like all-around.  “There’s a story in all of us, waiting to be told…” he sings – and he’s not wrong at all, that’s more than accurate – and he’s been waiting to tell his story for a while now…so like I mentioned earlier, it’s gotta feel real, real good to be officially telling it now, or at least part of it, with the release of Meant To Be in February of this year.

“Amazing” has a lot of really great moments in it that I love…most of which are probably coming through the musicianship and the chorus of this cut.  Personally, I’m tossed-up on the verse…part of me loves it, because Russell’s really left us with no choice BUT to love it with the natural bounce & cadence the words have in the melodic flow that snaps to the music so well…part of me thinks maybe a bit too perfect there in a way, or maybe a bit ‘matchy-matchy’ as they say in the fashion industry.  So he’ll have to forgive me there…I come from the Grunge era and sometimes that perfection in movement can get the hairs on the back of my neck standing up in rebellion…but I can certainly acknowledge it all fits and works.  There’s definitely a lot of natural appeal to the sound & energy of the way the music & Lee’s vocals interact throughout the verses…I’d never deny that…there’ll be a ton of people out there that love this tune from beginning to end – again, I’m not saying I don’t…I’m just…cautious.  What I do really love without question, is the amount of soul you hear in Russell’s voice through the chorus, and I really dig on the harmonies you’ll find there once again.  Excellent guitar solo as well…not sure entirely if that’s from Lee himself or Vito Destefano…whomever’s responsible deserves a high-five, those tones came out perfectly, the part itself isn’t overtly flashy, it’s stunningly well-controlled, flawless – that’s cool with me.

I certainly have no issues with the players in the band or vocals you’ll find from Lee – everyone in the band can be counted on to hold their own entirely and the music always comes out engaging & enticing to listen to – and moments on songs like “I Don’t Know Why” reveal that real magic that can be found in the melodies Russell can sing.  For me, I’d put this right up there with the best from Lee’s catalog so far easily – I think he’s written excellent words, I think the hooks and melody completely connect right to the heartstrings as intended…and the results reveal an emotionally powerful and moving tune, quite often just as heartbreaking as it is beautiful at times.  But yeah…I mean…I’d be considering this as a single if I was Lee…there’s a ton of appeal to this song and I think there’s a great argument to be made that you’ll find Russell’s best performance on the microphone during “I Don’t Know Why.”  I think “Picture” was still ultimately the right call as the lead-single…I think the chorus of “Amazing” is right up there with the parts of Lee’s music that have had the most impact…but I really felt like “I Don’t Know Why” tightly nailed down everything from performance to production.  The contrast is exceptional…and I think this is where Lee flexes that mastery of songwriting incredibly well; there’s a great chance that “I Don’t Know Why” could be considered the most inviting melody and memorable set of hooks on the whole record – yet when you dig right into the lyrics here, you’ll find there’s more of a mix of sadness into this particular track than perhaps any other.  Ultimately, “I Don’t Know Why” still has multiple moments of joy and beauty too…but it’s definitely the tale of an apology that can perhaps no longer be made, now turned into a tributary tune that tells the true story of a very real situation & set of emotions.  So…to call it deceiving wouldn’t be the right way to put it…call it deep, call it layered, call it whatever you want – just don’t miss out on this tune, because there’s a lot here to unpack when you dig right into it…that happy melody on the surface is undeniably catchy, but the words that run deep underneath this song are fantastic too and reveal a whole different side of Russell’s writing we’ve yet to experience.

Victory is right on the horizon here…the moment “Believe In Me” began with its beautiful mix of cautionary melancholy and spine-tingling sound from the piano notes ringing out, I felt like we could be in for the best cut on the record to end Meant To Be.  It’s kind of got that same kind of hollow-melody & sound that you’d find on “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan or “Fade Into You” by Mazzy Star – hard to put it any other way than it’s very rare to really find a song that has an atmosphere like this.  So I’m loving that…because mix-wise/music-wise, I think “Believe In Me” is completely exceptional in every way.  Russell isn’t out of place here by any stretch…at there are several points on this song that demand a lot from him in the melody and I think he gets there in the end, every time…you can hear a rawness & realness in his voice here…like he’s just getting to some of these notes with everything he’s got, but like I said, he gets there.  Best way I can put it perhaps, is that whereas on the six tunes prior, you hear Lee fitting right into these songs hand-to-glove, you can hear him searching for the heart of “Believe In Me” and still exploring the melody to this final cut a bit more than the rest by comparison…might be a newer tune, might be a song where lots of directions have been tested out & tried – could be lots of things, right up to & including the design of the atmosphere that gives this last track a feeling like he’s a little less sure about it all.  Which…ironically kind of works against him a bit in a song where he’s asking listeners to “Believe In Me” at the same time…that’s not lost on me…but at the same time, I think the rawness & humble way he’s sung this final track also has a charm & appeal to it that the other tunes don’t…and that might be its biggest advantage at the end of the day, that shakier ground this song finds itself on.  What is absolutely certain, is that he’s got himself another really great idea here all-around – I think the music of “Believe In Me” is gorgeous & captivating to listen to, straight-up.  For me personally, I think I ended up being on Russell’s side here after spinning this record several times over…I don’t know that I’d argue this last song is quite as well-rounded or perfect as the rest might have come out, but it’s remarkably close, and “Believe In Me” still creates a smooth & sweet exit from what’s been a great experience from beginning to end.  Consistently solid songwriting here from Russell Lee with excellent execution from all facets of the band, himself certainly included – Meant To Be has been a long time coming, but now it’s here and you get the full “Picture” – definitely a tight record worth the waiting.

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