Jamie Lidell - Compass
Upon hearing Jamie Lidell's very capable white soul-boy vocals (think a less nasal Adam Levine) and discovering he looks a little bit like Calvin Harris, it's hard to understand why he hasn't captured the hearts of many a swooning teenage girl or hot-flushin' mama in the UK. Born in England, the thirtysomething is a resident Manhattanite and, over the last decade, has delivered a succession of albums that have presented his own take on the soul, funk and blues genres; why he hasn't made it big in this country is partly down to publicity, but it might also have a lot to do with the fact that Lidell's approach, while faithful to his influences, is playful enough to broach boundaries and experiment. His previous three albums have been the result of an independent-thinking, DIY approach, so it's interesting that his fourth record - and his third on ultra-cool label Warp - Compass sees him opening his sound up to even more sounds and collaborators. Which way will it go?
Opening tracks Completely Exposed and Your Sweet Boom place Lidell's sound firmly in the Gnarls Barkley camp; no bad thing of course, when the vocals easily hit the notes Cee-Lo himself would and the production shares the same welcome tension between modern and retro. It's She Needs Me which proves the album's first unavoidable highlight though, a shamelessly cocky/cute upgrade of Boyz II Men's I'll Make Love to You with knowingly naff lyrics ('She needs you in the morning just to cook her some eggs sometimes') and a powerhouse bedroom come-on vocal begging for this to become a slow jam pumped out of speakers all summer - to be fair, I see no reason why that shouldn't happen.
The rest of the album's first half is a tightrope act that Lidell manages to traverse without too many close calls, often calling to mind an alpha take on Nikka Costa's barmy Ronson-produced Everybody Got Their Something (it's no surprise she's listed as a collaborator in the credits). I Wanna Be Your Telephone works the flirty Prince funk but is let down by an irredeemably weak lyrical metaphor ('...Always in your pocket, never far away') but the upbeat single Enough's Enough will have you smiling at every stranger on the bus; meanwhile, the sultry It's a Kiss nearly had me tonguing the stranger next to me during my own journey this morning. You Are Waking's scattershot rhythms and dirge-like guitars won't be to everyone's taste but they do preview the more 'alternative' vibe showcased in the album's final stretch.
It's not until the album's title track is reached when Lidell really begins to wear his more offbeat influences, not to suggest that what has come before isn't already a glitchy enough, skewered take on his beloved soul. Compass is a revelation though, similar in tone to Radiohead's The Reckoner but (shhh) maybe a little better, Lidell's emotive and unpredictable vocal joined at first by an acoustic guitar until this relatively simple setup becomes a fusion of filmic strings, tribal percussion and spooky backing vox. No wonder it's the title track. From this point on, the more lo-fi and NME playlist-friendly tracks take centre stage; the vibe on Big Drift couldn't be more 'American alt' if it tried, this languid mood-piece featuring Beck and Leslie Feist (yeah, I know she's Canadian, shush) on vocals and taking its time to impress - don't worry, it gets there. Meanwhile, Daniel Rossen and Chris Taylor from indie darlings Grizzly Bear also dip their fingers in, the latter producing and mixing tracks including the title track and Gypsy Blood.
And that's Compass for you - it's safe to say that, upon listening to it, you'll get turned around more than once. Heck, you might even get completely lost in the woods at times but, amidst the trees, there is always a track - or at the very least an attempted, if fudged, amalgamation of sounds or ideas - waiting to pull you through and show you the light. Lidell is an interesting proposition, not always an easily digestible one, but that's sure as heck preferable to the whitebread public school boys peddling 'soul' nowadays. It's just a shame he isn't on the bill right before Stevie at this year's Glasto: now that would show 'em.