I’m not even going to front on you readers here and pretend I’m this all-knowing expert on the new wave of R&B songbirds who seem to be hemorrhaging out of the UK the past couple of years.
As a matter of fact, it has always been my MO as a writer to steer clear of any kind of overblown trend, be it emo or electroclash or the ridiculously-titled “raw rock” or pop-punk or grime or freak-folk or whatever flavor-of-the-month genre music journos seem to have flocked to at one point or another over the last ten years.
British diva R&B has certainly been the hot point for a while now, and given its representation, it looks as though its time in the limelight should have come to pass somewhere between Lily Allen’s Visa denial and Amy Winehouse’s recently YouTubed crack session. I never paid much mind to any of it, really. Winehouse’s Back to Black has been slowly growing on me as a perfectly okay retro-soul LP, but her tragic life is a total turn-off, regardless if she put out an album that rivals Aretha’s Spirit in the Dark. Allen is very, very nice to look at, but that music is way too cutesy for my tastes, although I’m sure my 22-year-old cousin loves her. Leona Lewis, well, I was never much for those Top 40 belter types. Corinne Bailey-Rae is waaay too bland for a black girl, while Kate Nash and Duffy are essentially riding the coattails of the hype and will be as relevant five years from now as one-time Lilith Fair-era one-hit-wonders Meredith Brooks and Merrill Bainbridge are today.
Twenty-year-old Adele Adkins, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of the tabloid fodder who have inundated the mainstream in that she actually seems to have a good head on her shoulders. Sure, the London native is brash, having rendered the Arctic Monkeys as “fucking idiots” in a recent article in the May 2008 issue of the British music magazine Q after they dissed her (and Winehouse’s) alma mater, the prestigious BRIT School of performing arts, during this year’s Brit Awards ceremony, where she herself took home the Critics’ Choice Awards. “Think they’re working class,” she continued in her anti-Monkey rant. “They’re mums are art teachers, ain’t they?” And she likes to party just like any other 20-year-old girl as well, as mention of her love for lager in the same article seems to indicate.
But her vices come with an air of confidence that give her a precocious, Artful Dodger-esque quality that makes the idea of her chugging pints and flipping off British indie royalty charming, not tragic. She’s the kind of girl you could see yourself settling down with in your 30s, which for her at her age, is not exactly something you want to hear. And therein lies the concept of her astounding debut album, 19, a collection of songs that ache with the longing of the perfect would-be girlfriend who just can’t seem to find the right bloke her own age to recognize that she’s such a major catch. She’s a buxom beauty with “a little more to love”, as it would say on her own private MySpace page. But given that most guys, especially in England, seem to prefer anorexic Kate Moss clones who just smile and wave their way through life than real girls, one can see where Adele is coming from in her music, especially on tracks like the vibrant first single, “Chasing Pavements” and her heartbreaking, seemingly Randy Newman-inspired rendition of Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love”.
This is music, mind you, that clear blows the roof off any other blue-eyed R&B album that has come out of Great Britain since Macca got down with Stevie Wonder. Boasting a trio of producers that includes Mark Ronson, Eg White and Jim Abbiss, 19 indeed boasts several distinct sounds by which Adele is given to do her thing. These are utilized quite harmoniously to fit her powerhouse vocal delivery, a stirring combination of her diverse influences ranging from the Cure’s Robert Smith to Philly soul queen Jill Scott to legendary rhythm ‘n’ folk chanteuse Karen Dalton.
Ronson delivers his proto-soul power to but one track here, the album’s second single, “Cold Shoulder”, which rivals anything on Back to Black and makes one wish he harbors more of a creative presence on her next album. However, Abbiss, known for his board work on albums by the likes of such new school UK rockers as Kasabian, Editors, and Adele’s fave, those pesky Arctic Monkeys, offers up beautifully spare arrangements, using nothing more than bass, acoustic guitars and piano, that really bring out Adele’s voice to peak performance, particularly on 19’s one-two punch pair of opening tracks, “Daydreamer” and “Best for Last”. One can possibly hear the crackle of old vinyl copies of Carole King’s Tapestry and Roberta Flack’s First Take being played in the background if you listen hard enough through a good sound system.
Meanwhile White, known for his work with such pop luminaries as Kylie Minogue and Yaz singer Alyson Moyet as well as extensive work on Duffy’s Rockferry, drapes Adele’s voice in lush string arrangements here on songs like “Chasing Pavements” and “Melt My Heart to Stone”, which helps punctuate the power of her enormous voice more effectively, but also feel a little too gaudy when sitting beside the production of Abbiss and Ronson. But don’t be surprised if White’s songs on 19 are the ones you will most likely hear over the PA the next time you get dragged to Bed, Bath and Beyond with the missus.
Adele Adkins is certainly the real deal, standing before what could potentially be a monster career with worldwide crossover, one that could prove that her staying power is far more plausible than those of her tabloid-driven contemporaries. So long as she doesn’t start hanging out with Pete Doherty or finds true love and then starts to get all sappy, that is.