In preparation for my upcoming contribution to Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, I’ve been rereading everything I’ve read—and written—related to the mid-90s British downtempo scene.
I came across an unpublished piece I wrote in 2004 about Stephanie McKay’s debut album, McKay, which was produced by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Earthling’s Tim Saul. Because much of what I wrote still stands—because the album still sounds fresh and new, because permanently holds a place on the iPod—I thought I’d post it here. McKay was one of those astonishingly good UK-produced R&B albums which, sinfully, never found the audience it deserved. It sits alongside Lewis Taylor’s debut album as one of those magnificent albums that will turn heads whenever you put it on. Highly recommended. Sadly not available on iTunes (though her new album is) but it looks like the Amazon UK MP3 store has it.
For all the eclecticism that distinguishes R&B as a musical style, the ‘mature’ end of the genre can be surprisingly staid. While relentless competition for pop success pulls in sounds from UK garage and Jamaican dancehall, the more upmarket neo-soul sound is rather more conservative. Artists like Alicia Keys and India Arie establish their credentials by nostalgic invocation of Stevie Wonder, while others—Jill Scott, Angie Stone—appear stuck in the 1998 Atlanta production template.
That is one reason why Stephanie McKay’s self-titled debut album is refreshing. The production is handled by two outsiders to the US R&B scene, Geoff Barrow and Tim Saul. Both of these men—as the producers behind Portishead and Earthling respectively—were closely involved in the ‘Bristol sound’ that was at the core of the short-lived trip-hop genre.
There is a freshness about McKay from the outset: vinyl cracks and pops announce an analogue sensibility missing in the post-Atlanta sound of Timbaland and The Neptunes, and somewhat bypassed by the acoustic mannerisms of Keys, Badu and Arie.
There is also a distinct difference in tempo. The songs which sound most like Portishead - “Tell Him”, “Sadder Day”, “Five Days Of Faith”, “Thadius Star”—join precisely-arranged minor-key chord stabs to soundtrack-esque strings. But above all they display an awareness of space that outlines trip-hop’s debt to dub, fore-grounding thunderous bass figures and Barrow’s crisp drum programming. The production on songs like “Sadder Day” is meticulous and strident: a sparse acoustic guitar loop opens, before breaking into ruptured bass tones, dramatic string arrangements, a rattling mandolin and a backing vocal racked up to sound like Portishead’s trademark theremin.
McKay, formerly of The Brooklyn Funk Essentials—and a sometime associate of Kelis and Talib Kweli—is certainly up to the challenge. In “Sadder Day” her vocal gradually builds from the throwaway breathiness of the opening lines—“I ain’t got no money / and I don’t care / I been sitt-in’ down in this well I swear”. She accelerates through the following line—“Now I ain’t gettin’ nothin’ but the same old shit every day”—before strutting behind the beat to haul the song into the chorus. Later she displays a tempered command of melisma, and enough wit to tease out the emotional implications of the song.
The match between the vocals and production is often flawless. “How Long” works around a moody altered piano chord that recalls Wu-Tang. But the lush strings at the back of the mix and the delicate chord changes suggest instead the 1970s Gamble & Huff Philadelphia soul sound. The vocal works its way between the two extremes before building to such intensity that it seems ready to puncture the mix. There’s a gorgeous middle eight, too, in which a thickly harmonized vocal—“What time is it? What time is it?”—syncopates against the same bass-piano loop and makes it seem to lilt and buck in its moorings.
Elsewhere, Mckay’s impressive vibrato on “Rising Tide” finds all the angles in a rather harsh, unnerving song—from hip-hop vocal ticks through nursery-rhyme chant and molasses-slow behind-the-beat blues.
The lyrics are mostly devoid of the sentimentally and cliche that mark much songwriting of this type. The more earnest tracks, which flirt with a kind of Five Percenter spiritualism, are less interesting. But in general, the lyrics are well-married to the production. “Echo”, a hypnotically-underproduced protest song, recalls Nina Simone’s ability to marry uncompromising politics to charming simplicity.
There is certainly a retro feel to the album, even animating the more lightweight songs. The dancefloor bubblegum of “Thinking Of You” brings to mind the sound of London’s pre-trip-hop Soul II Soul crew. “Take Me Over” is an unironic and unassuming faux-reggae piece, based on the Dave and Ansel Collins’ “Double Barrel”. It comes dangerously close to pastiche.
This shouldn’t suggest that the album lacks any flavor of contemporary R&B. “Bluesin’ It” has a distinct Timbaland feel: discreet parcels of sounds push the beat forwards. The tightly-coiled vocal wraps itself around the taut guitar and organ licks, before breaking into a coy and playful lilt. “Loving You” opens with a lean, sparse digital beat that recalls some of Jay Dee’s production, although the chorus—with its gentle string line and breathy high-range vocal—sounds eerily like Minnie Ripperton.
As with the much of the mid-nineties Bristol sound, it’s hard to distinguish McKay‘s fond regard for its influences from a general feeling of nostalgic loss. In either event, the hand-on-heart retro aesthetic causes a strangely weightless feeling of freedom from context. It is this weightlessness that animates and buoys this refreshingly individual album.