Lockdown Soul Sides

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No gigs and a slowdown in releases may have reduced the music industry to a crawl this spring, but there’s still some good ‘n’ soulful stuff out there to be enjoyed during lockdown. Here’s Echoes Editor Chris Wells with an online Soul Sides column to guide you to it.

No better place to start than with my favourite female vocalist. Like José James, Ledisi has just left Verve Records after a several-years-long stint that produced some varied and intriguing music, intro’d her to new markets and support, and generally raised the profile of a still criminally underrated artist. Where she’s headed next we’re soon to find out – album in progress – but for now we have her first independently released song to consider: Anything For You is a beautiful soul-gospel slowie from which Led squeezes every last drop of juice… y’know, in that gloriously involving way that she has. Echoes of D’Angelo’s How Does It Feel are very welcome, but it’s all about the performance and the space she’s given to deliver it. Simply gorgeous.

Back in Blighty, Cleo Sol’s album Rose In The Dark is one of few complete projects to have slipped out just as lockdown kicked in, which could be an annoyance for her but a delight for the rest of us now enjoying it at home. Produced with Inflo, it’s a warming collection of mid-seventies and neo-soul, examples of the former being the Syreeta-ish floaty and melodic ballad Young Love – nice harmonies, haunting chorus – the beautifully undulating When I’m In Your Arms and the closer Her Light, while the ‘neo’ element surfaces in several cuts, including the shuffling Rewind and the vibey Why Don’t You. Like Ledisi, she’s gone for air and subtlety in the arrangements, relying on a sensitive vocal delivery to pull you in and hold you in its embrace – see the delicate I Love You in particular. Good use of strings here and there too, and some very able songwriting. A rose most definitely in early bloom.

Returning to the one-offs, it’s good to see North Carolina natives The Hamiltones back with a fine new single, J. Vito, Tony Lelo, and 2E continuing to pursue the soulful option – the stepping ballad Serious suits their swapped-leads and harmonies style perfectly. Last year, The ‘Tones were featured on three Grammy nominated projects: PJ Morton’s Gumbo[Everything’s Gonna Be Alright]; Jonathan McReynold’s Make Room[Graduate]; and Best Gospel Album winner Tori Kelly’s Hiding Place [Help Us To Love]. Tracks this strong will only lead to the chance of some awards of their own not too far down the line, I’m thinking.

From Stockholm comes female neo-souler Nápoles, the slowly swaying Circulate serving as the second offering from her forthcoming debut EP Slowin’ It, due for release later in the year. Haunting horn refrains and echoing drums underlay a drifting, sexy, small-hours vibe from an artist who will already be known to some as one-third of the popular Swedish DJ/creative collective Ladieslovehiphop. Producers on Circulate are Chapee and Wihib Sulaiman, while Nápoles wrote it herself in collaboration with Joe Lefty. More please.

More of an old-school, sixties feel from Londoner Stephanie McCourt – she lists influences such as Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Christina Aguilera and Amy Winehouse – whose debut EP Wings certainly sounds the part. Hank Hughes, CEO of F/H Block [he’s seen success with the likes of Sam Smith, Emeli Sandé and Naughty Boy] signed Ms. McCourt to his star-spangled roster, after which young Steph spent many a month in the studio, writing original material with diverse members of the F/H Block writing team and producers. The result is a half-dozen retro-soul tunes, led by the beaty Save Me as first single and supported solidly by strident ballads [the title track], Memphis-style crunchers [Call Me] and slow-waltz dirges [Keep Me At Bay]. To be honest, I could have done without rapper Scrufizzer on Call Me, but that’s just me speaking with soul head screwed firmly on – something I do before the boxers-as-facemask’s in place every morning.

Also very pleasant is 17-year-old Isabelle Brown’s Work It All Out, the follow-up to previous single To Say Goodbye and a couple of sold-out shows in London and her hometown of Brighton earlier in the year. Whereas To Say Goodbye was a relaxed-pace and somewhat mournful farewell to her relationship, the new tune acts as a ‘prequel’ to the story, Ms. B suggesting they can get through their difficulties and flourish. To be fair, nobody can see into the future – although if she’s already this good, young Izzy’s looks to be bright. An old head/young shoulders thing going on, for sure.

The release of Ego Ella May’s album Honey For Wounds has [understandably] been delayed a little by the current crisis, but it’s definitely worth waiting for later in the summer. The South Londoner is frequently dubbed a ‘jazz singer’, but the truth is she’s really jazzy neo-soul, so a perfect fit for this column. In fact, Badu fans will adore tunes like the single Girls Don’t Always Sing About Boys and In The Morning, both of which – frankly – are more the direction I wished Erykah had gone in since Mama’s Gun. [Very much doubt the broken beat/drum & bass influences would have shown up across the pond though.] The casual shuffle of Tonight I’m Drowning is spectacularly cool – sounding this relaxed can’t be easy, surely? – and Table For One couldn’t be a better constructed and performed slice of sinuous, soulful heaven if it tried.
While you’re waiting, you might want to check out Ego’s doings up to now on the streaming sites, where you’ll currently find So Far, a collection of the music she’s released over the years.

Oh yeah: finally, this little teaser. We began this column by mentioning two artists – José James and Ledisi – who used to be on Verve Records but have since gone indie. Well, there’s another such in the pipeline readying a superb new album for July. Not allowed to identify them as yet – end of May announcement, so next time – but it really is amazing.

Stay at home. Stay safe. Stay with Soul Sides.