Hearing of a collaboration between English and American singer-songwriters Flo Morrissey and Matthew E. White caught my attention upon first hearing of this project. These two singers have sung together before, albeit only once at a Lee Hazelwood tribute concert in London back in 2015. Presumably the marriage of their two vocal styles worked well enough for them to come out with this collaboration. Both of these artists have some rather respectable releases under their belts and both have a certain pleasing softness to their singing voices that I could imagine working well together. What further interested me was the fact that this project would be a covers albums and, seeing the tracklisting, a lot of the song choices caught my attention. Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne and The Velvet Underground’s Sunday Morning caught my eye as both are favourite songs of mine by two of my favourite artists of their respective genres and eras. However, the real tracks that jumped out at me were the likes of Frank Ocean’s Thinking ‘Bout You and James Blake’s The Colour in Anything. To include two covers of popular songs from the contemporary R&B catalogue is the kind of adventurous approach to this collaboration that I thought, if done right, could make it really stand out as more than just a covers album intended to introduce each artist to the other’s fanbase. Indeed, the result is not quite what I expected, however that’s not to overlook the many merits of this record.
The collaboration’s opener is a cover of Look at What the Light Did Now by Little Wings, an artist with whom I am largely unfamiliar outside of his 2015 release for the Woodsist record label, Explains. This song is a fitting choice for a collaboration between Morrissey and White and doesn’t see either of these two artists stray outside their comfort zone to any significant extent. As a result, both artists seem to have a clear idea of what they want to do with this cover and this makes it one of the stronger tracks on the record, and it establishes the lovely way in which the two singers’ vocals complement and work with one another. In fact, the beautiful call-and-answer vocals are what make this project stand out so much. Morrissey and White really play with the juxtaposition of the English girl and the American boy and there exists a tangible chemistry between the two that comes off very positively. Their performances individually are both very good too, with White’s soft whispering voice sounding calm and clear, whilst Morrissey provides her usual fluttering, dreamy vocals as she carries the vocal melody flawlessly. As for the instrumentation on this first track, the Spacebomb band come through with a tight performance that is produced to sound clear and sweet and accompanies the singing well, taking the backseat when it needs to.
Frank Ocean’s Thinking ‘Bout You from 2012’s Channel Orange comes off just as strong, and perhaps even stronger, than the introductory track. Whilst White’s more subdued vocals take the lead on the verses, Morrissey’s powerful voice takes control of the track on the chorus, and it feels a lot more compelling because of it. Moreover, the chorus on this track features some fantastic guitar playing that works into the small phrases in which the vocal melody is not at the forefront, making the vocals and guitar sounds like a call-and-answer in their own right. Whilst the duo’s cover of James Blake’s The Colour In Anything from his last album is not as impactful as their Frank Ocean cover, it is nonetheless a nice moment in the tracklisting with a solid performance, particularly from Morrissey.
I was honestly unsure as to what I should expect from the Bee Gees cover that sticks out like a sore thumb around the middle of the tracklisting. I envisaged many different routes that a cover of Grease as performed by two indie folk artists could go, but Morrissey and White deliver a very strong rendition of the stage play classic. The steady instrumentation feels natural and fitting as to allow for the two singers to impose their own personalities on their respective vocal parts. The gradual introduction of backing vocals throughout the track make it feel soulful, particularly when paired with the slightly funky instrumentation peppered amongst the arrangement like the clean jazzy guitars and the organ incidentals.
It was inevitable that I should touch on the Cohen and Velvet Underground covers, as I can become rather defensive of the original songs I love when I hear of another artist covering them. Firstly, Suzanne, as I have mentioned, is perhaps my favourite Leonard Cohen song, with Cohen being amongst my favourite folk artists of the late 60s and early 70s. Much to my satisfaction, Morrissey and White capture the dark and gloomy feeling of the song rather well, but also in a rather different way to Cohen. This cover doesn’t seem to feature quite the same sense of regret and longing of the original, rather there is a feeling of a more hopeful resolve thanks to the vitality of Morrissey’s angelic vocals that dance behind White’s almost ASMR-like delivery of the song. The original version of Sunday Morning has an air of freshness and vigour to it that I have always felt is pertinent to the title of the song and the lyrical content, as the song blooms and blossoms into a beautiful composition. Unfortunately, Morrissey and White don’t really capture this feeling or play with it in any significant way. Instead, the cover feels all too safe and snug in the artists’ comfort zone, which is what I worried many of these covers might end being like. Thankfully, I haven’t found that to be the case for the most part, but it must be said that the duo’s renditions of Roy Ayers’ Everybody Loves the Sunshine and George Harrison’s musical adaptation of Govinda are both as safe and predictable as I would have expected from these singers’ versions of these tracks.
As a first time studio collaboration between these two artists with some audacious choices being made with regards to the song selection and approach to these covers, Gentlewoman, Ruby Man is an impressive project and opens possibilities for future collaborations between Morrissey and White. If they were to use this release and its reception as a learning experience and worked on another collaboration in light of what this had taught them, I would be very hopeful of them turning out a fantastic project. After all, this release has its fair share of less compelling moments, but these issues could certainly be ironed out on another cooperative effort from the pair.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10