Underneath Janet Cull’s “Real Tough Love” lies a coal engine powering a locomotive filled with local splendor.
It’s deep, it’s dark. It flares up and pushes forward. It smokes its way to the next stop, each its own sordid haunt, each with its own soul, its own cry or lament. The only real consistency is the thick cloud her voice is wrapped in. It’s confident, sultry, and downright huge, each inhale and exhale measured precisely with just the right dose of grace and power.
It’s a ride that Janet shares with some fine company. On one side of the tracks are the musicians; some of the most renowned and celebrated this city has to offer. There’s real talent and taste rounding every turn, likely unparalleled in any other local release this year.
On the other, often overlapping with the performers, are the songwriters. Cull shares only two co-writing credits on the album, and the remainder is made up of excerpts taken deep from the catalogues of a selection of St. John’s songsmiths. But this is not due to a lack of craft; nor is it an afterthought. It’s a deliberate decision that takes the album in various directions.
The Novaks’ Mick Davis lends a trio of tunes, while Virgina Fudge steps it up to four. Within local confines, the songbook approach is a relatively novel concept; songwriters usually play their own songs, maybe stretching to incorporate the scattered standard. Here, Cull’s decided to pay homage to good friends and good musicians.
And it works. Well, it mostly works. The album sounds grand, the playing is immaculate, and her vocals are heavenly. When the album is on, it’s on. But there’s a lack of identity. Borrowing from such a wide swath of songwriters has spread it thin. Diversity in style should be praised, but the quality of songwriting contained on “Real Tough Love” is erratic. One song might bounce between 90’s radio rock melancholia, while the next might be a clever little jingle.
There’s dreamy blues bar numbers, and then there’s new wave inspired pop. Between real showcases of creativity and catchiness lie a list of cliches. Prime example: two separate songs use a “Hold On” hook. With the combined pedigrees of everyone involved, there’s just a lot of missed opportunities.
Which is a shame, but that doesn’t discount the great moments. The title track stands up as my favourite rocker of the bunch. Davis’ “One Plus One” is an offbeat little sojourn. “You Boy Blue” is big and poppy in all the right ways. “Mommy’s Boy” is a homemade gospel chorus that sends the album off into the clouds.
“Highway of Tears”, though, is where the band sits best and sounds most comfortable. Its hazy jazz cadence is also a natural place for Janet’s voice, which, by the way, is incredibly versatile. She never sounds out of place, hopping around to each genre poised to conquer it. The album is worth a spin solely based on her masterful presence.
There’s a lot going on with Real Tough Love. Sonically, it’s great. The production is clear and crisp, and the talent just seeps from it. There’s many ears that it will find a home in and rightfully so. It’s beautiful in bursts. It’s rueful and real. But it’s the adventurous type that just can’t settle down.