LeRoy Bell,
Two Sides to Every Story
(Martez, 2006)

LeRoy Bell has a voice ideally suited to the flavor of bluesy pop he's delivered on Two Sides to Every Story. It has texture, passion and strength. It recalls Steve Winwood at his best, or perhaps Seal. It resists being clearly labeled as black or white and yet it doesn't merge into some sort of bland grey, either.

All the songs on Two Sides to Every Story are composed by Bell and many have a distinctive and engaging rhythmic sense, informed by Bell's drumming background. Particularly noteworthy on this front is the track "Once Upon a Time," which employs an off-the-beat guitar strumming I associate with South African rhythms. Following close on the heels of "Once Upon a Time" is "He Can't Hold Her," a song featuring cello and accordion in its arrangement, lending it a completely different personality from the previous track. And yet, the unifying feature of Bell's voice ties the songs together perfectly.

Bell's ability to craft catchy songs should come as no surprise given his compositional work for other artists including Elton John, the Spinners, Rita Marley, the Temptations and the O'Jays. But the best songs on Two Sides to Every Story don't feel as though they've been written for the music marketplace, they have a personal quality that's attributable primarily to Bell's vocal delivery. And even on lyrics as formulaic and faceless as "I'll never give up, I won't give in. I'll always be right here ... I'll wait forever, for you" (from "Waiting"), Bell's singing manages to carry the day.

Thankfully the bulk of Bell's lyrics are more adventurous than those in "Waiting" and visions of Michael Bolton are kept to a minimum. Among the best tracks on here are "21st Century Man," "I Want You to Know Me," the aforementioned "Once Upon a Time" and the album opener "Voodoo." The triple guitar attack employed on "Voodoo" could easily overwhelm the song's melody in the hands of a less accomplished producer. But Bell proves his proficiency behind the boards by balancing the acoustic rhythm, acoustic lead and slide guitar components to leave exactly the right amount of room for his soaring vocals.

In addition to wearing the producer's hat, Bell plays drums, guitar, banjo, accordion and percussion on this release, but Two Sides to Every Story isn't completely a one-man show. Bell's support band, His Only Friends, provide a solid base on which Bell's songs are showcased. Terry Morgan on bass, Phil Peterson on cello, accordion and vocal harmony, Stan White on percussion, and Rick Novito on guitar and accordion make for a tight, sonically diverse ensemble, one that keeps Two Sides to Every Story fresh from track to track.

Blues purists will likely shake their heads at the blues label being attached to this release, pointing out that songs like "Still Not Over You," "I'm in Love" and "Waiting" sound nothing like Muddy Waters. But what's indisputable is the fact that Bell can write songs, songs that don't always fit neatly into one musical category, songs that might take on a blues tint in the hands of a Joe Cocker while sounding distinctly AOR if performed by Celine Dion. Bell's own renditions of these less adventurous compositions are never less than competent. They may not approach the splendor of "Voodoo" but they each have a bit of musical magic that makes this album special, even in its weakest moments.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
3 March 2007

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