Jamie Lidell’s English soul

It’s 2008, folks. So, that means David Bowie’s soul homage Young Americans is now thirty-three years old; Elvis Costello’s R&B tribute Get Happy! is twenty-eight; Dusty in Memphis is very nearly forty. At this point, the idea of the English soul revival record is so well-established as to be a complete cliche, and any fresh attempt should rightly be met with considerable suspicion. Amy Winehouse has taken a stab at it recently, and though her Back to Black isn’t bad, it definitely suffers in comparison to its classic English soul predecessors. (It also doesn’t hold a candle to the superb work her American backing band, the Dap-Kings, has done under the leadership of Brooklyn’s extraordinary funk and soul traditionalist Sharon Jones.)

But: what to make of Jim, the new retro soul album from Jamie Lidell? What on earth could be the point of yet another English performer making a soul record in 2008? But after I started listening to Jim, that kind of question quickly came to seem trivial and unimportant. Lidell’s record is infectious, joyful, brilliantly produced, and disarmingly sincere. It’s more than good enough, in fact, to eliminate any need for theoretical justification.

Jim‘s opener “Another Day” is a masterpiece— it would make a worthy submission for a doctoral thesis on soul composition and arrangement. But despite its studied perfection, it’s very far from an empty genre exercise: instead, it’s a warm, sweet love song, in which Lidell delivers an ebullient vocal imbued with a sense of hopeful, yearning happiness. He sounds like a man transformed: “Another day, another way for me to / Open up to you,” he sings, with the newfound conviction of a man who’s just figured out how to turn his life around. (In a Pitchfork review, Philip Sherburne points out that the song could just as likely be about art as love: it could be addressed to his audience as a kind of explanation of his shift from the noise and experimentation of his previous work and toward something simpler, and perhaps closer to his own heart). With “Another Day,” Lidell could have coasted on the strength of chorus alone—it has an easygoing, deeply appealing hook, and it’s sunny, natural, and sincere—but the song is also enriched by the great care given to all the details of its arrangement. The production feels clean, clear, and uncluttered, despite the fact that there’s always a great deal going on—including gospel-tinged backing vocals; horns that soothe, drive, and punctuate all at once; and the ingeniously unexpected (but perfectly fitting) combination of handclaps and birdsong.

“Another Day” is a hard act to follow, but it’s far from the only gem on Jim, and the whole record demonstrates both a deep reverence for its source material and an uncanny ability to faithfully reproduce genre nuances without ever descending into one-dimensional imitation or pastiche. The piano in “Wait for Me” has a Motown bounce, but the chorus, with its Steve Cropper-style fills, owes more to the Stax Records sound. “Out of My System” channels Stevie Wonder and the Supremes while also hinting at an Sam and Dave shout-and-stomp number, and meanwhile finds room to fit in surprising touches like synth washes, flanged guitar, and chiming vibes. “All I Want to Do” is a flat-out soul ballad, and “Green Light” aims at an Al Green kind of slow-burning sensuousness, and gets deliciously close.

Often genre exercise records are terribly boring, and just make you wish you were listening to the real thing instead. But Jim is a joy all on its own, and the fact that it reminds me of just how much I love all those old soul records is only icing on the cake.


1 Response to “Jamie Lidell’s English soul”

  1. 1 Best new music 2008 « Good Readings Trackback on December 31, 2008 at 1:02 PM

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