Thursday, April 24, 2008

What Goes Around Comes Around

Jamie Lidell – Jim
Sam Sparro – Sam Sparro

A lot of people are going to react violently against this album. Jamie Lidell’s previous album, the outstanding ‘Multiply’, retained some vestiges of his history with electronic music - very slight hints remained of the glitchy short attention span of ‘Muddlin’ Gear’, or the propulsive club rhythms of his work with Supercollider. ‘Jim’, however, rejects this past completely, cementing Lidell’s reinvention as a modern day soul singer. Synths and cut-up beats are replaced with gospel infused piano lines, backup singers and the fundamental, inexhaustible template of a live rhythm section. It might simply be because Lidell is a white man from Cambridge (now living in Berlin), or perhaps there are more complex reasons, but many will no doubt bemoan this album’s lack of authenticity. Has Lidell sweated and suffered enough to earn the right to sing this music, music which he most certainly doesn’t own? Perhaps there is some element of post-Joss Stone, post-Amy Winehouse calculation going on here, odd as this might seem from an artist on the Warp label. Either way, Jools Holland will no doubt love this.

Frankly though, who seriously cares? Lidell openly admits he hasn’t tried to conceal any of his influences, and that ‘Jim’ is simply a reflection of the music he loves. Whether authentic or market driven product, ‘Jim’ reveals Lidell as a singer with charisma and passion and a genuine understanding of the necessary ingredients of soul music. Furthermore, he’s not striving to be too sophisticated here – most of the songs here are gritty, groovy, impassioned and entertaining. Even when the lyrics are essaying pain and frustration, there’s a fundamentally uplifting quality to the music, neatly summarised in ‘A Little Bit of Feelgood’, with its precision tight playing and its simple but attacking guitar line.

The result is that the energy and stamina of these songs is simply irresistible. Only a very churlish person could resist the toe-tapping thump of ‘Wait For Me’, or the honey-coated gospel vibe of ‘Another Day’. There’s a propulsive, appropriately stormy urgency to ‘Hurricane’ and a driving energy to ‘Figured Me Out’. Whilst undoubtedly derivative, the attention to detail on these songs is staggering. Listen to the arrangement of the backing vocals on ‘Wait for Me’, the horn chart for ‘A Little Bit of Feelgood’ or the glockenspiel and handclaps of ‘Out of My System’ for just a hint of how meticulously Lidell has recreated the ‘organic’ sound of classic Stax and Atlantic soul records here.

Lidell’s greater sophistication is also highlighted by the ballads. ‘All I Wanna Do’ is gorgeous, Lidell’s voice restrained and controlled, accompanied by surprisingly bucolic acoustic guitar pickings and high pitch keyboard parts. It’s when the dense backing vocals join in that the song is really lifted to another level though, somehow reminiscent of Rufus Wainwright when his opulence is best serviced to the demands of a song. Perhaps even better is the closing ‘Rope of Sound’, uncharacteristically elusive and mysterious.

There is a lingering sense of pointlessness here though. Just what has Lidell achieved by so carefully revisiting his founding influences, when Mark Ronson is already doing such a shrewd job of updating the soul template? He has succeeded in making a vigorous and enjoyable album, but one steadfast in its refusal to break any boundaries or take music to any new places. Clearly this was never part of Lidell’s gameplan here, but there’s enough evidence both in his voice and in the arrangements to suggest he has the potential to innovate as much as recreate. Maybe he is abrogating that responsibility in favour of something more comfortable and less challenging. He can clearly make records like this in his sleep.

Perhaps it is also disappointing that Lidell has not yet found a way of capturing the maverick innovation of his live shows on disc. There’s little hint of his gleeful sampling of himself or his construction of entire songs simply from manipulating the sounds of the human voice. Instead, he has favoured the sound of a real live band for this project. Similarly, there’s also a slight sense of disposability with this music when set against the tracks that have obviously influenced it – I frequently find myself enjoying the display of knowledge and enthusiasm, but completely ignoring the lyrics – to the extent that the songs have not really burrowed their way into my mind.

If there is a calculated mind at work behind ‘Jim’, it has been trumped and spectacularly undermined by the surprise success of Sam Sparro. Sparro looks more than a little ridiculous – and it’s difficult to know if this smooth, brilliantly executed electropop is intended as sincere art or merely intricate pastiche. The hilarious video to ‘Cottonmouth’ possibly suggests the latter, but like other irreverent songwriters (the likes of Stephin Merritt and Neil Hannon spring to mind), Sparro has written a collection of songs that stand strong enough on their own merits to withstand such accusations. Perhaps ‘Black and Gold’ has climbed close to the top of the charts simply because its bouncy groove and insistent melody are irresistible.

Sparro is neither as studied nor as dynamic a singer as Lidell. Instead, his voice has a richness and smoothness that makes it ideal for the accessible pop music he has crafted here. This is not to deny his manifest talent though – entirely self-written and produced, there is plenty of evidence on ‘Sam Sparro’ to suggest there is a knowledgeable and well trained musician at work here. The slap bass extravaganza of ‘21st Century Life’ reveals the heavy influence of Prince, but there’s also the sense that Sparro has absorbed the more polished end of 80s pop, from new romantics to the tail end of the disco boom (here the rhythm guitar on the slick ‘Hot Mess’). ‘Sick’ sounds like Erasure might have sounded if they had been fronted by Luther Vandross rather than Andy Bell. It might be absurdly cheesy, but I can’t resist the splurges of synth extravagance on ‘Cottonmouth’ or the chant of ‘I need some H2O! Down my throat!’ at the song’s conclusion.

Unfortunately, Sparro’s lyrics rarely match the saccharine confection of his melodies and arrangements – they are sometimes glib and frequently formulaic. There are platitudes in abundance too (‘everything you do will end up coming right back round again’, ‘it’s a sick world, but I’m your medicine’ etc) and plenty of rather pious celebration of the joys of music and its healing power.

I’m not sure all this cyclical repackaging of music already successfully realised decades ago is really necessary, or even particularly desirable. It arguably amounts to a tacit admission that pop music has fewer and fewer avenues left to explore, which is essentially a defeatist position. I’m also much more positive about artists that are at least drawing links between superficially divergent forms of contemporary music. The nagging sense that it might all reduce down to knowing irony doesn’t exactly help either. There’s no denying that this is an entertaining listen, with genuine broad appeal. At the very least, I’ll take it over the vast amounts of underachieving indie that it seems increasingly difficult to avoid (The Courteeners, The Kooks, The Wombats, The Pigeon Detectives etc).

No comments: