For most (Northern, UK) folks, good old fashioned soul is still relevant. The middle aged working class will remember the 'Northern Soul' club nights of the late 60's and early 70's. It's been a while since soul has been relevant in the slightest. Neo-soul took stand in the late 90's towards the early 00's with Erykah Badu and D'Angelo throwing out charted hits left right and centre. In Great Britain, we had Seal to thank for our slight adult contemporary/soul revival, with many mid to late 00's artists taking direct influence from Motown and the soulful success Seal achieved with his self titled album in 1991. Amy Winheouse, Duffy, Estelle and just recently Adele have all achieved worldwide success through their soulful attributes. Michael Kiwanuka won BBC's 'Sound of 2012' earlier this year, which pretty much guarantee's success and mainstream airplay.
It's not so much the hype that causes the recursive airplay, it's the machine. We'll talk about 'the machine' another day, but for now let's indulge into Michael Kiwanuka's debut album. My first listen is the same as my fifth and tenth listen, it has the soulful features and clear cut influences from the likes of Van Morrison, Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye. The majority of listeners would of read BBC's articles on Michael Kiwanuka, or heard the praise on Radio One, but what differentiates himself from the likes of Van Morrison and Marvin Gaye, two exceptionally good artists. 'Tell Me A Tale' has a certain 'Moondance' vibe to it. The background drumming is noteworthy and the dynamic changes with the drumming separates soul segments with jazz segments. The chorus takes on a completely different musical vibe, whereas the verses are quite jazz-folk and bass heavy.
Kiwanuka has a warm voice and a bittersweet tone, 'I'm Getting Ready' only adds to the melancholy vibe. It's a short track and opens with a simplistic guitar riff which sounds incredibly aged, much like Van Morrison's recording style and Simon Finn's groundbreaking 'Jerusalem'. At only two and a half minutes, it's the shortest track on the album. It's one of the singles and for good reason. The guitar work isn't too overpowering but plays it's part on the right side as a dominant force with the upright bass. 'Ill Get Along' opens with lovely instrumentation. The flutes are clear cut and standout as that 'spring' kind of sound. The vocal is respectable but not Kiwanuka's best on the album because it's a little bit too stark, too bitter in comparison to the remainder of the album.
'Rest' opens with melodic eclectic guitar backed by the ear catching drum beat. The piano enters as Kiwanuka begins a heartfelt The Temptations-esque track. I adore the small string sections which play a massive part in the overall sound. This track has that 60's atmosphere and reminds me of artists like Otis Redding, The Stylistics and even Dusty Springfield. 'Home Again' was released as a single and has a perfect second half, it's also delicate on the earl. The vocal is withdrawn and works a charm with the applicable strings. Everything about this track is interesting, from the finger picking to the lyrical themes, it just has that welcoming vibe which is both uplifting and incredibly saddening.
Jazz band drumming returns on 'Bones'. The percussion works with the upright bass and Kiwanuka's jazzy vocal is the masculine version of Nina Simone. The backing vocals are welcomed and give it that 40's/50's war hero feel. The progression is very calming and the vocal dynamics are pure and fresh. 'Always Waiting' has orgasmic piano work among the standard percussion and finger picking left sided guitar. This track goes over my head slightly, it's not capturing me and the vocals are a little too withdrawn and quiet. They're obscured by the strings and upright bass, not the best of moods, I can also here a couple of (intended?) mistakes. The album was recorded on the Isle of Wight by Paul Butler of The Bees. It's not the best production in the world, but it's up to folk standards and has brilliant string recordings.
The last three tracks fail to amuse me in the slightest. They do have melancholy aspects and are intended to be the heartfelt, slow and most enquiring tracks on the album, but it comes across as 'filler'. 'I wont Lie' has a jazzy section but the progression is highly predictable. 'Any Day Will Do Fine' has more of that jazz-folk genre style I mentioned earlier. It's nice to hear but without many variations it becomes too vague and predictable. It's what you would expect and the chords are all very similar on the final few tracks. Especially with the closer 'Worry Walks Beside Me', which has the exact same progression as the previous two tracks, it could have flowed in and I wouldn't of noticed it. The vocals are very standard and the volume is content, not the best finish his debut album.
Tell Me A Tale and Home Again are standout tracks, with I'm Getting Ready backing them up to create three respectable singles. Nothing else seems to grab my attention or change my opinion in Kiwanuka. I don't think the hype has hit him too much, but he's certainly under threat of being labelled a 'one trick pony'. This album is honest and soulful, Kiwanuka gives a strong vocal and has the ability to improve his song structures for LP 2. will he manage to improve? that's a different topic, but his influences are visible, his place is confirmed and he has the backing of the British press.