A debut album that at once delivers on its promises whilst hinting at future greatness.
Best known perhaps, as the home of Black Sabbath, Electric Light Orchestra, Duran Duran and UB40, B-Town, as the NME has labeled it, is currently undergoing something of a musical renaissance with some amazing new acts emanating from this proud and once great industrial city. And just like the city has undergone change and regeneration in the post-industrial era, so to has the music.
For those less au fait with the term B-Town, it refers to the city of Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city and to a group of loosely aligned indie bands, headed up by current media darlings Peace, Swim Deep and Jaws. But it's not just in the indie landscape that things are bubbling up. Goodnight Lenin and Boat to Row are creating some wonderful folk music, Lady Lesharr and RoXXanne are ripping it up with sassy, in yer face hip-hop, James Summerfield and Hannah Peel both continue to produce wonderfully written and sung, songs, the Friendly Fire Band are upholding the city’s reggae tradition spitting out ground shaking, bass thumping, reggae and Jacob Banks has brought soul back to the city. And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Take an ice pick and dig deep and you’ll find an abundant array of music to keep even the most eclectic of tastes satisfied.
There is a rich mix going on here, a mix that reflects the young vibrant multi-ethnic communities of the city. It's said Birmingham has one of the youngest populations in Europe, which maybe goes someway to explaining the current musical milieu.
Standing at the head of this group of bright new things, and encapsulating all that is great about Birmingham at the moment, is 25-year-old Laura Mvula. Sing to the Moon is her captivating debut album and follows the critically acclaimed EP She that was released towards the end of last year. Such was the reception to She that Mvula was subsequently nominated for the Brits Critics choice award (ahem, for what that is worth!).
Much is being made of the richness, tone and dexterity of Mvula’s voice, which is drawing comparisons and evoking memories of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday as well as contemporaries such as Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae, and inevitably Amy Winehouse. While this can elicit groans and understandable caution from audiences used to the music industry hype machine, there are definitely some similarities, especially in the former two giants of 20th century jazz, soul and blues, Holliday and Simone. This's not to say that we should immediately infer some revisionism going on here, merely it is a mark of the quality and the emotive beauty of Mvula’s voice. Some people just have voices that strike a chord with you, something Amy Winehouse also had in spades.
That Mvula has reached this point is something to be thankful for. As a youngster Mvula was unsure of her own voice even though one of her aunts was a principal member of Black Voices, one of the UK’s standout female gospel a cappella troupes and who she would eventually join. It would be her parents however who would ultimately, pave the way, and influence Sing to the Moon.
Being encouraged to really commit to things she wanted to do by her parents, Mvula ended up at the renowned Birmingham Conservatoire where she graduated with a degree in composition. This grounding in jazz and classical music was to serve her well for the album and can be heard in the unexpected arrangements of the songs which are particular highlight of the album.
Mvula like all (potentially) great songwriters writes about what she knows best, herself. The songs on this album reflect on issues of love, family fallouts, the search for identity and escape.
Backed by her brother and sister and a very tight group that includes harp (who other than Joanna Newsom is using harp so brilliantly?), keys, bells, drums and double bass, plus, I’m sure lots of other instruments, the album is full of great songs.
“Like the Morning Dew” opens the album and there is an immediate gospel, celestial, vibe. Mvula’s voice is multitracked and acts as a choral backdrop, as she informs us that “Our love is like the morning clouds / Like the morning dew that goes away” against a gorgeous double bass and a twinkling of chimes. This is how I imagine the stars might sound high up in the night sky. And like the stars that disappear as daylight dawns, so do does the mysterious lost love that Mvula appears to be singing about.
“Make Me Lovely” is a throwback to '60s soul arrangements, sharp bursts of drum and double bass are interrupted with light as a feather harp, reminiscent of Charles Stepney’s work with Minnie Ripperton. Mvula’s vocals are strong, strident and confident.
“Green Garden” brings a change of tempo with urgent soul claps and what sounds like a glockenspiel, as Mvula extols the virtues of the outdoors, breathing in the fresh air and of escaping with a loved one as she sings of her desire to “…fly on the wings of a butterfly”.
“Can’t Live With the World” is more reserved, Mvula’s breathless, controlled voice framed against the harp. This track gives way to “Is There Anyone Out There?”. Again it’s just Mvula’s voice, this time with the double bass for company. Its on this track that the majesty of her voice really comes through. Without the studio production tricks, Mvula’s voice has a timeless quality, closer perhaps to Shirley Bassey in her pomp, and you sense that without the sleek pop production which underpins the album Mvula really could be a soul sensation.
“Father Father” is a deeply personal song about, and to, her errant father which is then followed by “That’s Alright” a defiant, take no shit, stomper: “I will never be want you want and that’s alright / Cos my skin ain’t light / And my body ain’t tight / And that’s alright / But if I might / I must stand and fight.”
Two songs and two sides of Laura Mvula. Tender but hard.
“She” is up next and is arguably the song that really shone the spotlight on this emerging talent. More strings and a crystal clear, pitch perfect vocal performance, “She” is a song of rare beauty and a centerpiece of the album. I fear that we will hear this track all over film and tv soundtracks as well as adverts and I really hope overexposure doesn’t diminish the simple, understated, elegance of this stunning song.
“I Don’t Know What the Weather Will Be” (there is definitely a nature theme running through the album) and title track “Sing to the Moon” suffer a bit from what has proceeded them before “Flying Without You” lifts the tempo again with horns on a contemporary R&B track.
“Diamonds” strays into Bacharach and David territory, consummate songwriting and arrangements, I can picture Mvula stood stock still at the Sands in Vegas, audience in spellbound rapture and she delivers this classic song.
“Jump Right Out” has a laidback jazzy, bluesy Nina Simone delivery before “Something Out of Blue” closes the album with the harp and Mvula’s gently caressed vocals plucking at the heart strings. It’s a lovely way to close a fifteen strong debut album.
There is undoubtedly a major talent on show here. The mature songwriting and arrangements testify to that. The album also neatly straddles a radio friendly stance with enough blues, jazz and soul to appeal to those who like their music a bit more earthy. For me, there's a bit too much production polish on the album, I’d like to see a little more rawness as Mvula’s voice is so emotive and you hope and pray that her record company won’t force her down the path of making endless middle of the road versions of this album, she is way too good for that to happen.
This is an outstanding debut album that really does leave you looking forward to what may come next. On this showing, the girl from Birmingham really could develop into a soul legend.