By BRUCE DENNILL
Uptown Rhythm Collective: Different Places
Tanita Tikaram: Closer To The People
Ella Henderson: Chapter One
Icelandic bands are supposed have names peppered with umlauts and music chest-deep in angst, aren’t they? That will be the experience of many listeners, who will repeatedly check the details in the sleeve here to confirm that Kaleo aren’t one-time neighbours of the Kings Of Leon or part of the Pretoria scene that lifted the likes of Andra and Black Cat Bones to prominence in South Africa. JJ Julius Son’s voice is a rich, authoritative instrument, the centrepiece of everything on the collection, be it in full-blooded raw form or more in pure falsetto on the lovely, Ryan Adams-ish All The Pretty Girls. All the music sounds authentically of the country where it originally developed, in the eastern and southern US, blues and rock and roll that bears no trace of the frigid island from which its creators come, with the sole exception of Vor I Vaglaskogi, which still retains a Seventies-style guitar track as Son briefly reverts to his mother tongue. That song also serves to jar the listener into considering the far-reaching influence of the genres being celebrated, and to revel in the effect that the music has on them in equally far-flung corners of the world. Opener No Good is a barroom stomper, all energy and grit, with Way Down We Go a slow-burner recalling Hozier’s better output. Glass House and Hot Blood are fast and furious, while Automobile and Save Yourself are quiet and introspective, giving the collection a great balance, already suggested in the album title, which refers to the different sides of an old-fashioned record.
Uptown Rhythm Collective (URC) is a group of highly respected African musicians, combining their unique talents to create moody, often instrumental, world music. This is not mainstream, traditionally structured stuff, featuring as it does instruments such as Greg Georgiades’ oud and bouzuki, N’Faly Kouyafe’s kora and the accordion of Rene Lacaille. With few of the cues and emphases of pop or even traditional jazz, these compositions can be interpreted in a number of different ways. None of the tunes is particularly energetic, but there is certainly a sliding scale in terms of urgency. That scale often plays out within a single song, with Neill Solomon’s vocals running the gamut in Can You Hear My Call and Georgiade’s Love The Rain being relatively fast-paced. Most often, though, the appeal of this album is in the appreciation of the virtuosity of the musicians involved as they weave their instruments in, through and around the offerings of their bandmates. Down That Dusty Road and Last Train In The Desert are perhaps the most enjoyable options in this regard.
Tanita Tikaram is someone who’s flitted in and out of the public consciousness since her huge breakthrough hit, Good Tradition. That pop success was – and remains – out of keeping with her general style, which is presented afresh with this new collection. Tikaram’s standout feature is her syrupy voice, a sort of melange of Carly Simon’s distilled yearning and Nina Simone’s rich, bass authority, and the arrangements for her songs here, along with the production by Goetz Botzenhardt and Angie Pollock, support that fully. Contrabass, cello, clarinet, saxophone and other instruments with similar tone underpin a sophisticated sound that feels live, real and warm. Opener Glass Love Train is propelled by a brushed percussion track like so many wheels over the rails, and is gently joyous. It blends smoothly into Cool Waters, a smooth, elegant love song. The Way You Move is beautifully recorded, it’s kick-and-contrabass rhythm section impossible to resist, especially when supplemented by a wonderfully grimy sax line. This is dance music, not the predictable thump of synthesised beats – and there’s similarly good stuff later in the finger-snapping Night Is A Bird. The title track has a jazzy, syncopated instrumental track over which Tikaram croons, showing off her effortless musicality. The whole album has a shared style, making it possible to imagine as a single, excellent live set. A large part of that appeal has to do with the quality of the songwriting from Tikaram and her colleagues, and Don’t Turn Your Back On Me is one of the finest examples, conventional in structure but so enticingly put together that repeat plays are inevitable. My Enemy is a strangely low-key way to end things after such an exultant passage, but it is nonetheless a lovely piece, that’ll leave you thinking as well as feeling.
A finalist on The X Factor in 2012, Ella Henderson, has had to contend with that situation where the fuss from a TV talent show platform leads up to a tipping point where talent must prove to be more enduring than hype. Henderson had a fantastic start, with her debut single, Ghost, featuring Ryan Tedder’s golden touch as a co-writer, going to the top of the UK charts and achieving platinum sales in the US. The song has since been covered by a number of other artists as well, helping to cement Henderson’s reputation as an impressive all-rounder. Glow is another excellent contemporary pop single, using the same formula that gets Rihanna’s or Katey Perry’s latest tune guaranteed airplay. That template-driven approach – understandable in terms of the results it often achieves – is slightly frustrating given Henderson’s obvious skills. Her voice and ability to infuse a performance with emotion get a better workout on the emptier, more heartfelt Yours. Mirror Man brings in a Duffy-esque nod to classic soul, complete with a needle-on-vinyl effect and there’s more retro arrangements (strings, lap steel and more) in Hard Work. Pieces reverts to the type established by Kelly Clarkson, a pioneer on the reality-show-to-actual-reality success curve, complet with the octave-up vocal jump. Suggesting that an album is too long sounds churlish, but at 18 tracks, Chapter One feels like it slightly dilutes the impact of Henderson’s voice, trying to tick boxes that don’t need ticking, like the Nineties party tune Rockets. She has pipes to compete with Christina Aguilera or Adele – something which her X Factor audition offering Missed, included here – was clearly designed to draw attention to and there’s a possible world-beater in here, with perhaps a touch more focus needed to take from “very good” to “sublime”.