RPA And The United Nations Of Sound - United Nations Of Sound
Richard Ashcroft, despite a successful solo career, is mostly feted as the mastermind behind one of the greatest albums all time, The Verve's 1997 classic Urban Hymns. This album, together with its lead song 'Bittersweet Symphony' and accompanying video (which has recently achieved the ultimate 21st century accolade by getting its own Facebook page: Richard Ashcroft walked into me and it was rude, 180 members), catapulted him into the stratosphere of the British music scene. Such is the mighty contribution this man has given to music that it is always exciting to see what this musical chameleon has up his sleeve.
Well, it's this: United Nations Of Sound, a soul flavoured hodgepodge of tunes. Recorded in New York, L.A. and London, the album was produced by Chicago Hip Hop artist No ID (Common, Jay-Z), and features contributions from musical arranger Benjamin Wright (who had worked with Michael Jackson) and Motown engineer Reggie Dozier. So you get the idea of the sound Ashcroft is going for. Does it work? Sometimes.
The album starts off with great promise with the Verve-like lead single 'Are You Ready'. With a majestic string arrangement and Ashcroft's beloved nasal whine the song charges forward with great vim and vigour and is a real winner (despite the rather cheesy wah-wah pedal guitar solo, which you will be hearing a lot of throughout the album): "Are you ready? Are you ready for the day? / Please don't come back down to earth / I hope you're gonna pray." 'Born Again', using the wah-wah to slightly better effect, is quintessential of the album's upbeat tone. Evidently Ashcroft is over the failed reunion of his former band and is ready to head off to pastures new. Hence the upbeat positivity of the songs' themes. The album is a celebration of musical collaboration, love, friendship and the healing power of music. Unfortunately the songs don't always live up to these lofty sentiments.
'America' survives a very dodgy intro (a cross somewhere between Jay-Z and Ennio Morricone) and is saved by Ashcroft's first-rate delivery and an infectious melody. Unfortunately, that damn wah-wah pedal is running rampant throughout and is very distracting. 'This Thing Called Life' is where the album starts to fall apart. The only thing that keeps this tune from descending into the bowels of schmaltz is Ashcroft and his incredible pipes. In anyone else's hands this song would go a bit too near JLS territory for comfort. Note the amusing reference an old Ashcroft nugget: "You got to learn the drugs don't really work / unless you find the ones that hurt." The snappy 'Beatitudes' is a cool tune, and the lovely 'Good Lovin' fairs better in the R&B department than 'This Thing Called Life'. Now the incongruous 'How Deep Is Your Man' is interesting. Starting off with a Muddy Waters-style delivery (you almost expect him to start going "boom boom boom boom") it then morphs into early 60s style pop. It's decent enough, but feels a bit like an afterthought. 'She Brings Me The Music' is the Bic lighter, arm waving concert moment, and is very pretty. Just Ashcroft, a piano and his voice. 'Royal Highness' will have you dancing, and is one of the album's few highlights. Assertive and punchy, this is the direction you wish more of the album had gone in. 'Life Can Be So Beautiful' is pretty terrible, Ashcroft, one of rock's greatest vocalists, singing in a very unconvincing falsetto. The song is so trite and bland not even Westlife would touch it. The overblown 'Let My Soul Rest' ends the album on a flat note.
Despite a few touches of the old verve, United Nations Of Sound is quite a let down. No doubt some of the two dimensional songs will transfer successfully live but we'll just have to wait and hope that Mr. Ashcroft has something better to pull out of his hat next time.