Cleveland P. Jones‘ Ace of Hearts is one of 2013′s most soulful and emotionally direct offerings. It’s a raw, direct and uncluttered collection of heartfelt songs that ably demonstrates Cleveland‘s fully rounded artistry. Across the project’s 12 tracks, Cleveland announces himself as a bonafide triple threat – writer, producer and, above all, unique soul vocalist adept at wringing emotion out of common themes.
Ace of Hearts is a plainspoken tale of heartbreak. Across the album’s 12 tracks, Cleveland breaks down, in intricate detail, the dissolution of a relationship, leaving no stone unturned. Songs such as Give a Damn, Heart Breaks and Ace of Hearts hit the listener square in the chest with frank lyrics and revelatory performances. Indeed, Cleveland‘s ability to take intensely personal experiences and craft songs that connect deeply with the listener (without succumbing to self-indulgence) marks him out as a performer/songwriter/artist worthy of comparison with Smokey Robinson or Bobby Womack. And, irrespective of the listener’s genre preferences, Ace of Hearts‘ subject matter, uncomplicated musical backdrop and (above all) heartfelt performances should connect with a broad audience.
The musical backdrop to Ace of Hearts is unashamedly old school in its approach, replete with a southern soul vibe, peppered with adroit sprinklings of rock, pop and country. While hardly sparse, the arrangements are simple and straight-forward, ably showing off the project’s highlight, Cleveland‘s compelling voice and engaging storytelling.
We’ve heard songs in this vein before (both musically and in terms of subject matter – with the exception of the emotionally devastating vocal tour de force, For My Father), but rarely with such conviction. For example, the bluesy rock of Don’t Leave Me treads an all too familiar lyric, but the emotional range of Cleveland‘s performance breathes life into what could be a run-of-the-mill break-up song for many singers. Indeed, Cleveland is an artist in control of his own voice, rather than just a great singer. There are no unnecessary vocal histrionics on Ace of Hearts, despite the breathtaking intensity of some of Cleveland‘s performances, as everything is focused on creating a compelling narrative thread across the album.
There are few contemporary soul artists crafting this kind of music and fewer indie soul artists wise enough to take the time to work through the kinks and challenges of releasing independently to deliver a coherent sound that stands out from the crowd (note: Ace of Hearts contains no songs for “the steppers”). Cleveland‘s decision to eschew synthetic production in favour of live instrumentation further sets him apart from the pack, creating a sound that fuses soul, country, rock and pop, moving the album away from certain narrow genre constrictions.
As a debut album, Ace of Hearts underlines – in permanent marker – what the converted already knew, Cleveland Jones is one of the most exciting and honest male soul artists to come out of the States for some time. But the project also surprises the listener. For those that came to Cleveland following his stellar work with Ahmed Sirour, the musical backdrop and performances on Ace of Hearts are less ethereal and jazz-influenced than those with which we’ve become familiar. That may prove to be challenging for those who like to pigeonhole their artists, only seeing them in 2-D. However, for the uninitiated and the open-minded, the more direct, grittier and downright raspier, version of Cleveland Jones remains the real deal and (when combined with the aforementioned work with Ahmed Sirour) further illustrates the depth of the man’s artistry.
Ace of Hearts doesn’t play like a debut album. While the end result provides plenty of room for artistic growth, Cleveland sounds like an artist deep into his career, confident in his vocal abilities. But Ace of Hearts also retains the hunger associated with debut projects, delivered in a personal and relatable style. Cleveland is a unique talent who, I think, will never lose that edge as it’s imprinted on everything he has hitherto released. Ace of Hearts is the real deal and, hopefully, just the beginning for Cleveland P. Jones.
Ace of Hearts is now available via iTunes.