When you think about soul music, it's the voice of the singer that immediately comes to mind, sink or swim. The lyrics, the arrangement, the instrumentation, they appear only in a supporting role, to be the vehicle that delivers the voice. Soul as I know it means the voice drifting in through your ears and grabbing you by the cerebellum. Shortly thereafter, it sends an impulse to your heart and stomach to let them know that something meaningful is being processed, perhaps something you've felt before, or something you want to feel and hadn't quite been able to put your finger on. The ultimate goal of the soul singer is to put together a series of noises that can stir the pot of human emotion, to make the listener FEEL something. Positive. Negative. Anything. There's no faking it when it comes to soul, either you have it or you don't. Early indications are that Michael Kiwanuka possesses it in droves.
That to me was good news. The great news, however, was that this young man was not just a voice. Turns out he's also a writer (whose songs are more than capable of standing alone as unembellished folk), he's also a studied jazz guitar player, and he also really knows how to pick a record producer. First and foremost though , the London born Kiwanuka is a songwriter, one with a terrific gift for matching words to melodies and melodies to the emotive swings of his rich melted-butter-over-sandpaper voice.
There's no over-singing here, which I think is one thing that separates a bona fide soul artist from the callow technical acumen of voices you hear on prime time TV singing contests. Absolutely none of the 'hey, look what I can do' falsetto runs, the pageantry, the ooh yeah yeahs, the wasted effort, the wasted notes. If it doesn't absolutely have to be there to get his point across, Kiwanuka simply doesn't sing it, and it takes an exceedingly savvy 24 year old to exercise such tasteful restraint when armed with such a potent vocal weapon (just ask over-singer of the century Joss Stone).
Listening to Kiwanuka's recently released major label debut LP Home Again, it's easy to hear brief flourishes that call any number of soul greats to mind, but it's not carried off in any mimicking childish way, he just gets it. In the same way Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke got it. Whether towering over uptempo horn-laden grooves or ruminating over sparse jazz chord progressions, his voice never sounds anything less than 100% honest, effortless and natural.
While the finished product of this album speaks volumes about Kiwanuka and his skills as a writer and performer, the album owes a huge debt of gratitude to producer Paul Butler for his part in building the wonderful warm contemporary vintage feel of this album. Butler, who also serves as writer, producer and multi-instrumentalist for his own band The Bees (known stateside as A Band of Bees for legal reasons), has been trafficking for years in making new records that sound as if they had just been unsealed from a timecapsule, dusted off and put on the turntable. He achieves that same impact to stunning effect here in presenting Kiwanuka's talents as an extension of his own. It sounds as if both have found their muses; Kiwanuka as the driver and Butler as the vehicle, and if Home Again is just the test drive, I really can't wait to see what the pair is capable of turning out together in the future.
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