NOVEMBER: Wallflower by Jordan Rakei

Ah, blue-eyed soul. A double-edged term that come across as much as insult as praise. It implies a lack of depth, a lack of the heritage of the music, not just racially but in terms of authenticity. Maybe this isn’t quite blue-eyed soul, but it’s certainly made by an artist who’s steeped deeply both in the history of the music and current trends. It’s also not quite accurate to say he’s a white guy singing a historically black genre. To be specific, he’s a Kiwi of Pacific Islander heritage who now lives in London and signed to Ninja Tune. How fantastically 21st Century.

So where did this come from? That was what I thought when I first heard ‘Goodbyes’. It was one of those times I immediately Googled the artist, found he’d made a whole album, and then just sat opened-mouthed when I sat down and listened to it. The opening number, ‘Eye to Eye’ starts like a soul ballad, and then when it kicks in, you know you’re going somewhere really interesting. That edgy, nervous arrangement, almost jazz-sounding at at times, is such a great counterpoint to his sweet voice.

This is such a tough genre to excel in. I mean, I think I’d call this a soul record, but it’s a post-dance era soul record, I suppose in the same way that Sampha is. There’s also a touch of those downbeat artists like James Blake in there too. But where some of this genre can be a little hit-and-miss – for example, I LOVE the highlights of the Sampha album, but there’s some filler on there, I really love the whole of this. It’s so fully-formed, it’s so rich, it’s so delicious to listen to. It’s beautifully produced too – those strings remind me of Craig Armstrong’s work on Massive Attack’s finest albums. In fact, Massive Attack are a real cornerstone, influence wise. Time for a trip hop revival, anyone? 😉

There are two stages to your relationship to an album, I find. The first is: do I keep playing it when I first get into it? This has been a huge yes – I’ve had to start rationing myself because I’ve listened so many times. The second stage is: Will I come back to this, year after year – has it become a permanent part of my musical landscape. Well, of course, I won’t know that yet. But if you’re asking me to guess right now, I’m pretty certain it will be. I like it that much.

Highlights: opener Eye to Eye, the straight-up soul of Nerve, funky, melancholic single Goodbyes, Massive Attack-esque Hiding Place. But honestly, I love the whole thing!

Thoughts, brothers?

6 comments

  1. misterstory

    Firstly, thank you for the for the music and thanks for (as always) a compelling write-up. I am quite glad that I got to know this album before I read your write up. I would like to say this was pre-planned but of course its ’cause life got in the way.

    My primary reaction to your words is that I read this album to be far more ‘classic’ or ‘conventional’ than you Brother David. I peeked at a few reviews when I knew the album was coming and read about the ‘grime of London’ wearing off on this sweet soul singer and was expecting much more of an electronic / urban (yuk) edge to the production. What I hear is a soul album. Straight up soul. Yes there are some clever noodly bits, Eye to Eye drops into pure jazz for me with some odd time signature and accenting. I was expecting a bit more of this later in the album but it never came. But I don’t think there is any question that we’re listening to soul.

    I never put him in the same bracket as James Blake or Sampha, my mind just didn’t go there. For me, it’s more Michael Kiwanuka, straight-up soul. As for the term Blue Eyed Soul … I’ve not heard that term before but hate it. I knew this dude was from NZ and guessed from his name he had Polynesian heritage but I honestly didn’t think much about his skin colour. I read very little about music, I watch VERY little music TV, most of my musical introductions come from this blog, spotify, pitchfork best new music and a handful of other review sites. If I am honest, I usually just look at the numerical review! This (purely accidentally) leaves me with a very pure relationship with the music and not the story or the blah blah of it all. This is how I came to this album and think I’m glad for it.

    Its interesting that you talk about stages of a relationship with an album. My first reaction was ‘I don’t think this is for me’ but I have consciously made a concerted effort to listen to it a lot, each time all the way through. When I listen to it, I find it either (a) a rewarding experience (b) the time flies – both of which of course are positive. However, I do not find myself drawn to selecting it when I am not consciously listening to it for write-up purposes.

    • David Allison

      Thanks, Brother J. Maybe you’re right, maybe it is more straight-up soul than I think it is. I do really, really love soul music, so I think it does just tap into that place that just immediately goes – YES – I love this. After the Beatles and Bowie, I think I’ve spent more time listening to Stevie Wonder’s 70s albums or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On or Aretha’s Best Of than almost anything. Also have a huge sweet spot for 90s/00s R’n’B, TLC, En Vogue, Blackstreet, Lauren Hill, Lucy Pearl et al, which lets face is just pumped up soul! So yeah, it probably does fit sweetly into a genre that’s always spoke to me, so perhaps I’m not hearing just how ‘soul’ it is.

      Bloody love that Kiwanuka album, btw, STILL play it a lot.

      • misterstory

        I actually listened to the album straight through after writing my review and could totally hear the Sampha-isms after reading your words! I think there is a fair chunk of 90’s soul influence in there too. And i agree, most of that was ‘pumped up soul’

  2. David Allison

    Funnily enough, this album has made me have a little delve into other recent soul albums I’ve really enjoyed. Currently spinning Eska’s eponymous debut fromn 2015 and Miguel’s Wildheart (which is BRILLIANT). Also: I reckon Frank Ocean might be my most played artist of the last 2 years, and let’s face it, he is soul, whatever the contemporary spin you put on it – the closest we have to a descendant of those Stevie Wonder masterpieces like Innervisions.

    • misterstory

      1) That’s really odd, the album has made me revisit Miguel’s Wildheart too! Yes I think that album is awesome. NWA is such a tune. Instant smiles, head nods and the odd rump shake.
      2) We never discussed Blond(e) enough on the blog. That album is amazing. Its on constant rotation. Love all of the guitars, so many of them, its the primary instrument which for a soul album is a not all that common.
      3) I’ve just had a shiver down my spin from simply reading the word ‘Innervisions’ – easily in my Top 10 albums of all time.

  3. nolankane706

    Brother David, another month and another strong effort. It has taken me a while to get involved in this discussion as I really needed to give this some time. I would be lying to say that there were a few occasions that I was turned off due to me not being bothered with it. I will say that I have chipped away at it and it’s grown on me over the last few listens.

    May of my thoughts have already been touched on, but I am going to weigh in on the James Blake thing. He’s not like James Blake, he’s like Jamie Woo. In fact so much so that I found it hard to separate the two. This isn’t a bad thing, but I already have that artist in my life and I wonder if I need another?

    There is no doubt that this guy can sing, he’s tight the album is tight and it’s the perfect music for the house. One thing which I really liked is that he didn’t only focus on belting out tracks, there’s a strong element of instrumentation which I love.

    I still have a little of my journey with this album as it’s still sinking in, but after a bumpy start things are starting to smooth out and it is rapidly growing on me.

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