Jamie Woon - Mirrorwriting
By April, all the 'next big things' talked up at the start of the year have usually had their first shot at the big time and released that all-important debut record. Jessie J may have shaken up the pop scene somewhat, but this year's other top tips haven't really hit the heights. Maybe Jamie Woon, who placed fourth in the BBC's now-annual 'Sound of 2011' poll, was wise to wait then as his debut proper Mirrorwriting (which follows his 2007 hype-generating EP, Wayfaring Stranger) doesn't get its UK release until now. The 28 year-old singer/songwriter, who has a fondness for samplers and has previously supported Amy Winehouse, has been tagged as another addition to the increasing slew of 'dubstep' artists, but there's more to this than quake-shaking bass. Is Woon's debut worth the wait?
For those who aren't already familiar with 'Night Air', just give it a few listens and it'll feel like an old friend; Woon's effortlessly soulful vocal sounds like it's been sourced from a lost '90s R'n'B classic, while the sultry backing groove manages the difficult task of sounding both retro and futuristic thanks to intriguing touches like the spectral backing vocals and the sexy, limbre bass. Although it never becomes a tired formula, Woon twists this template into different poised shapes throughout the record: so for example, there's 'Street' underpinned by its two-step shuffle, and 'Middle's Jamie Lidell-styled jitter-funk given an unexpected majestic air by the appearance of staccato strings at the midway point. And no wonder 'Lady Luck' was chosen as a single, as it sounds irresistibly contemporary while still overlaying an old-school Timbaland beat with a catchy gospel falsetto during the chorus.
Even the 'ballads' are imbued with captivating inflections. Woon could have laid back and counted the cash by presenting some young pop upstart with the melody to a song like 'Shoulda' but this is more than a drippy boyband slowie; in the hands of Woon, it becomes a spacious and fulfilling sonic drama ("I walked when I shoulda run and I ran when I shoulda walked, and don't I know?"), experimental in its electronic leanings but never drowning things in ideas. Meanwhile, 'Spiral' may have began life on acoustic guitar but, in its recorded version, there's almost a William Orbit air to its somewhat peculiar, down-tempo soundscape. Although the album's unhurried confidence may have lost some listeners by the midway point, you really should stick around until the end, as that's where the album's most emotionally resonant treasure lies in the form of 'Gravity', parts of which are enchantingly atmospheric enough to suggest Woon may have a future in scoring films should Mirrorwriting fail to be a bestseller.
It's probably a fair guess to assume many of The xx's influences are shared by Woon, as their post-R'n'B, bass-happy sheen is similar in tone, although Woon's less glaringly 'indie' aesthetic probably won't capture the NME crowd's imagination quite so readily, despite the obvious craft and talent on display. Although his loop-happy electronic tendencies may also position him alongside James Blake, who beat Woon to the post by releasing his own debut in February, Mirrorwriting is less stubbornly experimental; and, although I admired Blake's debut, it's all the better for it. By combining underground sensibilities with a background in classic songwriting, Woon has delivered a solid effort that justifies the early hype. Let's hope this one gets the push it deserves; if not, then I wouldn't be surprised if Woon is able to comfort himself with a Mercury nod later in the year.