[Album Review]: Michael Kiwanuka – Home Again

“Tell me a tale that always was / Sing me a song I will always be in”

I first came across Michael Kiwanuka’s powerful blend of folk and soul on a Communion label sampler released last year where his debut single ‘Tell Me a Tale’ held pole position. The song immediately grabbed my attention with a sound that showed evident influences of soul artists of the 70’s, but with a definite contemporary feel. Since then Michael’s star has been steadily on the rise as his music spread further, gathering attention until finally he was announced as the winner of the BBC Sound of 2012 award. Having come ahead of such noteworthy competitors as Lianne La Havas, Frank Ocean and Friends, a weight of expectation has awaited the release of Michael’s debut album Home Again, an expectation which Michael fulfils and exceeds.

Opening track ‘Tell Me a Tale’ sets the mood for the album, with percussion, flute and horns that evoke the free-time leanings of jazz-poets, while Michael’s hypnotically striking voice is reminiscent of Terry Callier. The lazy Sunday morning song ‘Rest’ lulls you into feeling like you’re drifting gently along down a river of mellow pianos and stings, before leading into the title track ‘Home Again’. This song has gained a lot of airplay since its release as a single prior to the album release and deservedly so since it beautifully shuffles along, centring on Michael’s voice and guitar before he is joined by evocative strings. The tasteful presence of backing singers and orchestral augmentation on this song (and indeed most of the album) brings a touch of class to the proceedings, giving the feel of a gospel choir in which Michael’s soulful crooning takes the lead as he sings “And the tears will clear, / Then I’ll feel no fear.”

‘Always Waiting’ is a song of yearning and moving on into tomorrow that drives on with the momentum of a steam train and which echoes the indelible songwriting of Paul Simon. Meanwhile, ‘I Won’t Lie’ is a bold soul anthem which sounds like a cutting room outtake from a forgotten Sam Cooke or Otis Redding session. For Michael to be able to weigh in with these soul titans shows his extraordinary ambition, and even more extraordinary is that he manages to pull it off. Elsewhere on the album, ‘I’ll Get Along’ and ‘Bones’ see Michael playing the unabashed romantic with heart on sleeve proclamations like “Without you I’m just bones.”

While the majority of the album is uplifting and optimistic, the closing duo of brooding tango ‘Any Day Will Do Fine’ and closing time confessional ‘Worry Walks Beside Me’ demonstrate that Michael is not afraid to plumb the dark, sombre depths of the soul. The sweeping strings and bold brass of the former push Michael’s aching vocals and tense guitar melodies to heady heights. As the strings fade and the lights seemingly dim, we are lead into the melancholic album closer ‘Worry Walks Beside Me’. Michael’s stark guitar and even starker vocals open the track and captivate the listener as waves of strings, backing vocals and piano swirl around. As always, Michael’s yearning vocals hold precedence on both tracks which bring the album to a majestic close on a contemplative note.

Over the course of the album Michael covers an impressive spectrum of raw emotion, from uplifting affirmation of life to melancholic lows and every pit stop in between. The album as a whole expresses a wealth of personal experience that belies Michael’s age and which is coupled with a sound that is bold and audacious, but in no way sounds arrogant or overreaches. Though his influences are plain to see, ultimately Michael’s unique character evident throughout Home Again shows that these are just influences rather than sources for cheap imitation. Michael Kiwanuka is the real thing, with songs that possess a balanced gentility that touches the heart and present a budding talent that we will no doubt hear from again.

Home Again is available in record stores on Communion now.

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[Cover Me]: The Gaslight Anthem, Michael Kiwanuka & Sachal Studios Orchestra

The Gaslight Anthem – Changing of the Guards (Originally by Bob Dylan)

The Gaslight Anthem are a band I have been following since I first started listening to them a few years ago. In that time they have gone from strength to strength, incorporating varying elements of punk, soul and rock and roll into a uniquely recognisable style all of their own. The lads have announced that they’ve finished recording their fourth studio album, Handwritten, which is estimated to be released in the summer. If, like me, you can hardly wait for the album’s release then hopefully this gem of a track will help tide you over until then. I hadn’t heard this Dylan track from 1978’s Street Legal before, but the lyrics are prophetically striking and almost Yeats-ian. However, I find the original somewhat pales in comparison to this raw and blood racing rendition. As ever Brian Fallon’s delivery is impeccable, moving between red-eyed rage and broken vulnerability as the situation calls for. Meanwhile the cutting lead guitar, cascading drums and thundering bass show the rest of the band are on sterling form as they race along, helter-skelter style, through Dylan’s apocalyptic track.

Watch this space for a review of Handwritten come summer time!

Michael Kiwanuka – Whole Lotta Love (Originally by Led Zeppelin)

It’s about time we had another Zeppelin track in this feature, and this time BBC’s elected Sound of 2012, Michael Kiwanuka, steps up to the plate.You’d be forgiven for not recognising the song at first, until the familiar bass line emerges out of a haze of swirling sitar instrumentation. After this the rest of the track falls into place, with organ, slide guitar and drums enthralling the listener. I never thought I’d hear a cover of the proto-blues/punk classic that features a sitar, but it makes sense here, especially in the cavernous breakdown after the second chorus. Meanwhile, Michael’s soul-searching voice remains cool and restrained, making sure not to fall into the pitfall of imitating Robert Plant’s inimitable, primal vocals. Though the band follow the original’s blueprint fairly closely, they manage to make their individual mark on it.

Stay tuned for a review of Michael’s debut album Home Again later this week.

Sachal Studio Orchestra – Take Five (Originally by Dave Brubeck Quartet)

While we’re on the sitar tip, let’s take things into exotic jazz territory. ‘Take Five’ is probably one of the most instantly recognisable jazz riffs, if not THE most recognisable jazz riff, and it was while looking up George Benson’s equally impressive cover that I came across this interpretation. By using traditional Indian and Pakistani instruments the Sachal Studio Orchestra manage to make Dave Brubeck Quartet’s jazz masterpiece sound simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. The saxophone riff is transposed onto sitar and violin, while the essential timekeeping duties are given over to tablas. It really works and manages to breathe new life into a classic which has been covered to the point of possibly losing its original spark and colour. Stunning.

[Artist Spotlight]: Delta Spirit

“I want you to wander silent past my outstretched arms”

Delta Spirit are a band from California that have been active since 2005, but which I have only recently got around to listening to. I am currently making up for lost time since I have become somewhat addicted to their infectious blend of Americana, Soul and Punk. Considering they have recently released their eponymous album last month, it feels appropriate to give them a plug and talk about one of their songs I’ve had on near constant rotation: ‘California’.

‘California’ is a driving song. No two ways about it. The relentless rhythm of the song perfectly soundtracks driving down the road with the top down and with one arm hanging down the side, watching the miles disappear from under you. The song begins slowly with a steady drum beat before erupting into a tidal wave of guitars. These then drop away into the spacious verses, occupied mainly by echoing guitars and Matthew Vasquez’s yearning vocals urging you to “Move to California for yourself, / But not for me”. The track then shifts gears once again and accelerates into the uplifting chorus, complete with wailing guitars and Beach Boys-esque vocal melodies. It seems to hint at a new breed of surf pop, with distorted guitars, pounding drums and pulsing synths as the foundations. Suffice to say, I think I may have found my soundtrack to the coming summer.

Grab yourself a copy of the song, along with other decent tracks by Delta Spirit and WATERS, on a six track tour EP here.