The soul album of the year for its challenge to the genre itself.
Kevin Le Gendre 2009-12-22
Over the last few decades the media has trivialised the term soul diva. Amid flimsy claims to the honour from singers with cut-price voices and big-budget videos, the meaning of Etta, Aretha and Chakha has dimmed. Mem Nahadr is a beacon, a reminder that the aforesaid had more than pipes. There was electricity in their character, too.
From the opening bars of Never Mind, the Washington-born, New York-based singer simply arrests the listener with an urgent, eruptive clarion, a kind of primal ecstasy that recalls Ms Khan on the crescendo of her timeless Tell Me Something Good, the flurry of high notes and the quivering vibrato held with a grace that puts gospel and opera in near perfect balance. As the set unfolds, the power is regulated with a wide range of subtleties – the under-the-breath articulation of Over; the haunting pizzicato tone of Starlight; the slightly hazy hush of Deep in a Shallow Bed. In other words, Nahadr studiously avoids the temptation to shoot for the scream queen antics that her multi-octave range would allow. Basically, she gets the theatre of song.
That probably comes in part from her work in performance art and, in particular, one-person shows as well as an inner fortitude derived from a testing adolescence as an African-American albino who endured ostracism from both sides of the racial divide. Nahadr also counts as a mentor the great jazz clarinettist Sabir Mateen, which may well explain why she stretches harmony or tempo more than the average pop artist and why her instrumentation – two bass guitars, keyboards, drum programming, electric trumpet, brilliantly played by Meg Montgomery – is anything but commonplace.
And yet for all the esotericism of this work it is also winningly accessible if not lopsidedly catchy in a Kate Bush meets Soul II Soul way. That is to say there are strident funk licks, dub shimmers and house grooves spiked by a dissonance that would scare most MTV programmers. This being the soul album of the year for its challenge to the genre itself, she won’t end up there. She’s too good.