Abit tired of Adele, Duffy and all the other retro 'C'mon girl, let's go Motown!' vocal sensations? But you don't know whether you can say that aloud for fear of being portrayed as the village idiot and being sent off on a donkey to lounge bar hell? Well, help is at hand and it comes in the form of Emeli Sandé. From the very first song on her debut album Our Version of Events, this 24-year-old British soul-pop hits the R&B anvil with a distinct dance pop hammer. 'Heaven', first bars drenched in synth and then a crunchy Manchester backbeat added for support, has Sandé reaffirming my wavering belief that great pop music doesn't have to discount great vocals. "O heaven, O heaven/ I wake with good intentions/ But the day it always lasts too long." A great melody that catches you by the heels and that also says something that's true. The last time something like that happened so effortlessly was Morcheeba's 1996 trip hop wonder 'Trigger hippie'.
With such a kick at the start, I expected Our Version of Events to be a soul-R&B album that does to dance music what Manchester bands in the late 80s did to synth-pop: give it some classy, backbeat derangement. But we are taken along a far more well-trodden American R&B-hip hop path instead. In 'My kind of love' Sandé is doing her Rihanna-Alicia Keyes (Keyes is one of the producers of this album) impression. The voice is still Sandé's. But the disappointment continues in the third track, 'Where I sleep'. Don't get me wrong. It's a decent enough song, with Sandé establishing that she has a powerful voice. But it ends up sounding like a top notch performance in an American Idol season finale.
'Mountains' follow. A plucking guitar number where we flirt with the ballad format before it turns into one of those soft, whispery songs that go well with a girl-blowing-dandelions video. Sandé has an incredible talent of riding her voice in various speeds, gears and amplitudes. We find this recur through the album - in the Grammy-friendly 'Clown', in the shimmering anodyne rumble of 'Maybe', in the R&B-country tune of 'Suitcase' (mandatory lighter-waving, please), in the heartful 'Breaking the law' that could have been a Tori Amos song were it not for Sandé's far superior voice. And that is the general trend in this 14-track record.
Except tucked in are gems that make this album grab attention as if collars gone loose. The faux-cheerful 'Daddy' does circle round the retro-chic park. But it takes the soul that's at the core of the song and boogies it up in a fashion that Amy Winehouse would have approved of. Sandé sings with the full 'aliveness' of a girl dusted and done with disappointment and is exorcising ghosts with a vengeful tune: "Put it in your pocket/ don't tell anyone I have ya/ I can be the one you run to/ the one that saves ya." 'Next to me', sandwiched in the second half of the album, could have been a Paul McCartney tune in its no-shit cheeriness, but for the fact that Sandé makes it take on a pop-gospel sheen. The shuffly backbeat returns in 'Lifetime' making the head nod and the heart melt.
Which makes me wonder why Sandé didn't go the whole hog and put her signature-style all across this album. Perhaps the temptation to take a shot at divahood? Perhaps a bunch of people giving her the idea that to do soul-R&B you have to stay clear from dance music? Whatever the reason, it's a missed opportunity that I hope will be corrected pronto.
A National anathema
I'm probably going to be put in the same American bounty list as Hafiz Saeed now that I'm reviewing Bruce Springsteen's 17th album Wrecking Ball in one measly single column space. But let's just say that the Boss's latest is too much of a manifesto, too little a collection of songs. We get the beefy patriotism in 'We take care of our own'; the Wall Street robbers-indictment anthem 'Easy money'; the redneck-is-angry 'Shackled and drawn'; the we-got-folked title song; the cry from the abandoned railtracks in 'Land of hope and dreams'...
I'm quite sure that Wrecking Ball will fill up Occupy Wall Street arenas. But musically, this album rides too much on message without putting a tune to cud. Springsteen's previous album, Working On A Dream, was far more nuanced - and good to hear - than this audio flag. The only song that does cross over from the Great Upset American's latest repertoire is the genuinely rousing 'Death to my hometown'. The Scottish rumble seeks war through the music. And that's how it should be.