Lizabett Russo’s debut EP, The Traveller’s Song, was released in 2013 when she hadn’t even graduated from university yet. But even with just one listen it was clear that the Aberdeen, Scotland-based, Romanian born singer-songwriter was a precocious talent to watch.
Leap forward to the summer of 2015. Russo is now freshly out of college with a diploma in one hand and her first full length album, the evocatively titled Running With the Wolves, in the other. One of the most remarkable things about her EP was that there was never the sense of a young artist still trying to find her voice. Her songs sounded bold and confident as if she was already certain this is who she was. Running With the Wolves shares this self-assured quality but in a more subdued, melancholy fashion as Russo reveals a similar yet different facet of herself.
Absent are the electric instruments of The Traveller’s Song. All eight songs on Running With the Wolves are acoustic, occasionally embellished as with the lush orchestration on album opener “All Those Times” or the kazoo on closer “Love Me No Matter What.”
The songs on this album, with the exception of “Love Me No Matter What,” don’t have as many hooks as those on the EP but there is such a palpable sense of increased maturity and sophistication that by the end of this album you find yourself wanting to immediately start listening again from the beginning. After a couple of listens the songs’ deceptive simplicity reveal further depths of craftsmanship. And after a few days’ worth of repeated listening I’d be shocked if you didn’t agree that the album is quite remarkable in its quietly unassuming way.
Many of the motifs from Traveller’s Song reassert themselves here: traveling, searching, finding oneself, finding home. It’s interesting that even though Russo, as an artist who left her beloved homeland to pursue her studies and career, is naturally taken with themes of wanderlust, musically speaking she seems to have already found her place. Moreover, even though the lyrics themselves are somewhat conventional these are not the songs of a gifted but inexperienced musician merely imitating her influences. The songs, both vocals and music, have a lived-in quality to them, seeming to come from deep personal experience that has left Russo wiser than her years.
The instrumentation on these tracks is subdued and lovely, but without a doubt the center of attraction this time is Russo’s voice, far more so than on Traveller’s Song. Demonstrating a staggering level of control and range for one so young, it at times reaches ethereal, goosebump-inducing heights. I have no idea, for instance, what to call what she does with her voice three minutes into the mythically-resonant title track, “Running With the Wolves,” but it is downright eerie (in a marvelous way). On the EP her voice was beautiful but somewhat uniform, but here she’s like a vocal chameleon. On both “Running With the Wolves” and “I’ve Been Waiting” she channels Billie Holiday by way of Beth Gibbons. And while I never once thought of it while listening to her EP, this time I repeatedly found myself thinking of Björk.
The East European folk elements that had a subtle presence in Traveller’s Song are even more pronounced here on songs like the medieval-sounding “You May Go Further and Find Worse,” “River Bridge” and the aforementioned “Running With the Wolves.” But this all comes to a quite wonderful and exhilarating culmination in “Love Me No Matter What,” easily the most catchy and upbeat track. After the pensive clouds and threads of European folk permeating the entire album, suddenly we find ourselves in the sunny, Woody Guthrie territory of contemporary American folk, complete with Russo’s playful kazoo and jubilant whooping. From the Old World to the New: the contrast is so dramatic it’s deeply moving.
Perhaps the symbolism isn’t accidental. Perhaps consciously or unconsciously Russo is making known her desire to find an audience here in the U.S. She certainly deserves to, for Running With the Wolves confirms she is an artist of singular, formidable talent and it would be a shame for Europe to have her all by themselves.