The soul album of the year for its challenge to the genre itself.
Kevin Le Gendre 2009
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.