A natural marriage between soulful vocals and the classic sounds of Muscle Shoals.
Andy Fyfe 2009
Invention and cross-pollination are hardly alien concepts within Bristol’s musical circles. In the mid-80s Adrian Sherwood convinced The Sugarhill Gang’s musical powerhouse to relocate from New York to Somerset and help create his dubwise Tackhead fusion, and since it’s been a city prone to experimentation.
The latest in an impressive line – if not exactly the newest in town – is Phantom Limb. Built around the Massive Attack-affiliated Robot Club production team and the stentorian vocals of Yolanda Quartey, they’re a sextet filled with the kind of country soul that once made Primal Scream scurry off to Memphis in search of their inner Rolling Stones. Phantom Limb’s exact path from writing for Massive Attack to striking out with fare like this is hazy, but it appears to have been laid by accident. Originally working on a different version of this album, they were forced into hiatus in 2006 when Quartey lost her voice. Necessity being the mother of invention, when she felt able to return they gently jammed around some songs and discovered, well, this: a natural marriage between her soulful vocals (think Curtis Mayfield cross-dressing as Mavis Staples) and the classic sounds of Muscle Shoals.
Opener Don’t Say a Word, particularly, echoes The Impressions’ heyday, and the gospel roots continue on Withering Bones, the kind of Wild Horses-like track that Jimmy Millar used to produce for The Stones. It also sets out Quartey’s lyrical stall, exploring the quest for love and frustration at never quite being able to find it. Music that harks back to these rootsy touchstones may not exactly be thin on the ground, but stacked against the slick likes of Joss Stone and Billie Ray Martin, the lap steel flourishes on The Hard Way, rolling piano and martial drums of Draw the Line, or sweet acoustic picking on Good Fortune often lifts Phantom Limb beyond the competition’s reach.
It’s not all great: I’ll Never Be the Same Again slips into an all-too-80s idea of ‘gritty’ soul, and Quartey can get over-emotive as she runs up and down scales that might wear even Simon Cowell’s ears. If, as their name suggests, there is something missing from Phantom Limb, it’s more to do with the fact that they relatively recently fell into their rootsical world, rather than came from it. But, unlike the ghostly affliction of their name, in time Phantom Limb may grow into something truly convincing.