This summer I wrote a handful of quite verbose, in-depth live and album reviews (and one profile feature) for a great Bristol-based music blog (featured on The Guardian and BBC Radio 6 this year). Here they are, listed chronologically. See the Jessie Ware piece below.
A live review of The Horrors
A review of Laurel Halo – Quarantine
A review of Arc Vel – Orrery
A review of Diplo – Express Yourself EP
A review of The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends
A profile feature / album review on Jessie Ware
IN FOCUS / / Jessie Ware
Mere days after the release of Jessie Ware’s long-anticipated debut, a consistent four star marker has emerged, as has as a seemingly ubiquitous tenderness for the South London backing singer turned soul sensation. Previously tipped as a vocalist best matched to beats (Disclosure remixing her to perfection in February), her now wide-spread appeal warrants further inspection, notwithstanding an ear out for what happened to all that dance music?
The aggregate reaction to Devotion has been not only praiseworthy but affectionate. Ware’s oft-mentioned restraint, her collected command over the late 80s soul tropes invariably noted in her productions – she’s clearly struck a note with those whose memories retain a, perhaps forgotten, fondness for acts like Soul II Soul and, of course, Sade. A review on Stereogum selecting it as album of the week firmly positions the album as a keen remembrance of such soul/r&b acts – an erudite harking back to those slick arrangements and vocals. It relegates Ware’s grounding in dance music to an inconsequentially formative aspect of her career, the textures left over on the album incidental markers of ‘now’, but not game-changers as per Frank Ocean’s ‘Channel Orange‘.
What this, and many, seem to miss seems indicative of a discrepancy in audience, but also influence. A comment on the same review attempts to call forth an interesting debate. Jessie Ware elicits comparisons with the aforementioned acts, progenitors of more reggae-tinged, traditional UK soul as opposed to the new jack swing-style soul co-existent across the pond. While the latter seeped through to the now almost indistinguishable worlds of high-commercial hip hop and r&b in the US, the UK scenes bled into (and in turn were coloured by) trip hop and garage, which themselves informed dubstep. That Ware herself comes from South London, the birthplace of dubstep, is no coincidence, nor is the fact that Frank Ocean’s music is redolent with signposts of that more American brand of r&b.
However, rather than getting lost in some genealogy of opposing cultures (as journalists so love to do), what this seems to prove to me is the importance, not of Ware’s roots in 80s soul – and Frank Ocean’s supposed movement away from that – but their disparate locations in music in 2012. Ocean emerged as a songwriter for the glitziest, most polished US R&B names, penning tunes for Justin Beiber and John Legend. Jessie Ware, borne into fame through collaborations with Joker, Sampha and SBTRKT, lives and breathes the sound of dance music in London. If such a palette is brushed into her brand of pop, it is done so even more liberally than on, say, The XX’s album – often remarked upon for its dance-canniness. Jessie Ware is no more a conduit for a trending dance music vocabulary than Jamie XX is incidental to UK bass music. And Devotion, while not quite as informed by dance music as it is soul, would not be the lush, sensual but metronomic album it is without the former, nor would it have been met with such crossover praise.
110%, while not an indicator of the album’s production style, is its most transparent reveal of these elements. Golden boy of the current new wave of house, Bristol’s Julio Bashmore is on production duties – as is he credited with efforts on ‘Sweet Talk‘ and key single ‘Running‘. A blog smash, the track conjointly plays most explicitly with electronics and plays them down. The sub pulses and twitchy hi-hats are made weightless by Ware’s soft staccato on the chorus, effortlessly making cool light of the melancholy side of clubbing: “although I’m coming close for you…I’m still dancing on my own“.
Elsewhere, subject matter drifts more consistently towards relationships and heartbreaks, as does Ware’s voice boom with a touch more melisma and vibrato, edging into more straightforward soul fare. Largely down to Kid Harpoon’s production role, some of those more MOR-embellished numbers suffer from a slight over-emphasis on Ware’s, albeit masterful, lounge-befitting notes. But even there the arrangements shimmer too widely for relegation to the coffee table pile. ‘Still Love‘, for example, has Ware’s ponderous vocal nestle amongst an almost glitchy spatter of drums and bass guitar. Equally, ‘No To Love‘ – perhaps the weakest point on the record – rides a very tight groove along Dave Okumu’s scattered guitars, occasionally cutting out of the mix akin to the electronica-meets-jazz instrumentation of bands like Cinematic Orchestra (labelmates of Okumu’s band The Invisible). Even the hair-in-the-wind crashing drums of power-ballad ‘Wildest Moments‘ are inflected with phrasal fills that give it the riffing chugs of a drum’n’bass break slowed to half-speed.
Okumu, almost omnipresent on the album, helps maintain this lush evasion of over-settled dynamics. His glistening plucks resonate across the record’s many tightly-strung pauses, embellishing Ware’s seamless vocal turns and in turn seemingly bringing out the gentlest shades of her chin-held-high melancholy. The epitome of this winning formula comes at Devotion’s title track – and one if its highlights. The tempo is wound right down and this kind of arrangement is strung with oscillating guitar lines that slide alongside Ware’s voice as it moves from hushed tones to phrases that sound like garage vocals wound into head-noddingly smooth syncopation.
If undertones borrowed from dance music morph the album into something idiosyncratic, it is still not enough to garner the kind of appeal Devotion has proved itself capable of in such a short time. Though she counts herself lucky to have been able to work with people like Okumu and SBTRKT – a tip from whom she attributes her masterful restraint – she doesn’t owe them her talent nor her immense likeability. Despite all the mention of roots and scenes, Billboard, in a recent interview threw at her music affectionate comparisons to artists as removed as Alicia Keys, Sinead O’Connor and J Dilla, with no mention of UK soul nor dance music. Humble and admittedly ‘straightforward’ yet unabashed and determinedly emotive – Jessie Ware proves as interesting a soul icon as her music. To say she has soul, then, says more than trying to guess where that soul comes from.