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I came across an unpublished piece I wrote in 2004 about Stephanie McKay’s debut album, McKay, which was produced by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Earthling’s Tim Saul.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.


Coverage of NXNE over at PopMatters, edited by yours truly. Includes a piece on the festival’s film content:

Nostalgia is the dominant emotion in much filmmaking about music. The primary impulse of many biopics, musicals, and documentaries is to memorialize music or musicians who have had a significant impact on the filmmaker’s life. Too often this has its own dangers: the rare biopic that does not sag with pacing problems suffers because it cannot establish any critical distance from its subject. But the mode can be uncannily beautiful — from the elegiac rhythms of, say, Clint Eastwood’s Bird, or the smoke-filled purism of Robert Altman’s Kansas City.

And a trawl of various music acts. Highlights were BC’s No Luck Club and Toronto’s Holy Fuck:

Holy Fuck are reductionists, intent on marshaling the squeals and protests of equipment designed for other purposes. At the Reverb, the audience comprised the would-be-hip and the professionally curious. It was a brilliant set, but only a few people got it. Much of the audience seemed more concerned with impressing the other people there. It was an elitist crowd, brought by the Now magazine showcase, of which Holy Fuck were the fourth act. Downstairs from the intimacy of Holy Joe’s, the Reverb has something of the church about it, and something of the thoroughfare. Its high ceilings produce great sound, showering shards of noise back to the audience along with drips of condensation from the air conditioning, a venue in which a dropped glass produces a shatter rather than a smothered crunch. But the utilitarian design — the traffic to the bar and the washrooms and the exits runs along the back — means that until an act is truly engrossing, it feels contingent. There is little to keep you there; you could be listening to another act upstairs (or downstairs, at the Kathedral) within moments, or out on the street. It does not ask anything of audience. It does not require you to commit. You have to want to be there, and you have to want to stay.

Profile of M.I.A.

An extended interview/profile up on PopMatters:

“Sunshower” has been sampled for almost 20 years now; there’s a snatch of its warped Hawaiian guitars and splintered percussion towards the end of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?”, but like attempts by De La Soul and Doug E. Fresh, it’s just dressing. The appropriations always seem piecemeal and placeless: Busta Rhymes’ “Take It Off” is slick, but not convincing. Ghostface Killah’s “Ghost Showers” attempts to wholly inhabit the song; it swallows him whole. There’s simply too much in the original: swooping Hawaiian guitars, child-like chants, ambient noise, guitar barely recognizable in a flood of in reverb. The percussion is so richly syncopated, so densely layered, that it leaves Daye’s vocal somehow isolated, exposed, as if shimmering in a cloud of dust. The melody itself sounds free and ungrounded, and takes on an almost atonal quality. The groove is woodlike, organic, pulmonary. Nobody has done anything as remotely convincing, assured, or unique with the same materials. Until M.I.A.‘s “Sunshowers”.

The difference between the original and M.I.A.‘s second single, produced last year by Steve Mackey and Ross Orton, is more than one of genre or period; it is a difference in aesthetics, a difference in the place given to popular culture. The original material itself is gutted. The slightly adrenaline bliss of Davy’s chorus sounds highly phased, over-exposed, washed-out at the edges. A percussive bass glissandi, which in the original gracefully eases the song into a final elaboration of the chorus, is ripped out and looped throughout the piece. The groove is a relentless throb that hammers its way throughout the entire song, rattling and lurching between violence and grace. “Sunshowers” erases the spirit of the original as it goes along.

Where Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band brought a wispy lyricism to disco, a feeling of dreamy nostalgia wrapped in their elaborate big band arrangements, M.I.A.‘s use of the song is—like the rest of her material—a blend of hard unsentimentally and poplike glee. It’s a striking contrast: strident political stances sit alongside made-for-ringtone hooks. There’s no middle ground on Arular, her debut album. Even the wordplay is taken to a level of abstraction, with playground chants in place of intimacy and wit. There is very little that deals with the minutiae of personal relationships; even “URAQT”, a song about betrayal, revolves more around the exchange of postures than of emotions. Relationships are almost transactions. There is no trust in this music.

Update: Now picked up by AlterNet.

Nostalgia 77: The Garden

Review at PopMatters:

If any of this material feels like pastiche, it is nevertheless very well done. There is just enough hip-hop to keep things grounded: the breaks at the start of “Freedom” have a pedigree that goes back to Mantronix. The attention to period texture is particularly refreshing, given the tide of neo-jazz schlock that is increasingly upon us: Riaan Volsoo’s bass is recorded with a wonderfully acoustic rattle and throb; Kelsey Jones’s trumpet and Jon Shenoy’s sax have a up-close spittle to match the density of the arrangements. Above all, the tracks themselves have a purpose that is typically missing from the worthiness of hard-bop revivalism or the meandering of jazz-influenced hip-hop. This is a solid meal, even if you can still pick out the ingredients.


Buck 65: This Right Here is Buck 65

Review running in the lead spot on PopMatters:

Terfry shows no sign of slowing down: a sequel to Talkin’ Honky Blues is due this year. His appeal isn’t just in the wedding of hip-hop to the American folk tradition; other artists from Beck to Timbaland have taken respectable shots into that acoustic barrel. Buck 65 is doing something more ambitious: reading a tradition of American storytelling through hip-hop. The expansive, inclusive, digressive American voice that runs through Guthrie and Dylan (and stretches back to Whitman) doesn’t sound out of place for a Canadian like Buck 65, any more than it did for Kerouac. Terfry has some of Mark Twain’s frontier nostalgia (his concert tall tales about Pythagoras’s fear of beanfields suggests a sure grasp of Twain’s sense of humor). Where he takes this ambition next will be fascinating to hear. This release is a pretty good summary of what he’s been up to so far.