Vancouver’s Dawn Pemberton has been a fixture in the West Coast music scene for some time now, lending her pipes to the likes of the Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer blues outfit, among others. However, she’s now stepping into the spotlight on her own with her debut solo album, Say Somethin’. Some might may consider her to be little more than a Canadian Sharon Jones rip-off, but this is far from the truth. For one, I doubt that Pemberton ever worked as a correctional officer. If you listen to this record, another artist of considerable stature comes to mind: Steely Dan. Yes, Say Somethin’ says something about jazz-rock fusion.
However, here’s the rub: Pemberton comes off as sounding a lot like what Steely Dan did on their 2000 Grammy Award winning album (for Album of the Year) Two Against Nature, rather than their classic 1977 record Aja. (The latter would and perhaps should have won the Album of the Year Grammy, if not for the fact that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were up against the likes of Rumours, which was a sales juggernaut.) That’s just an easy way of saying the complicated: Pemberton’s style of jazz-rock fusion is more modern and smooth sounding, well refined and commercial. Basically, this is a record for the blue-haired crowd, but there’s enough here for those who like soul, R&B and jazz rock to make Pemberton an appreciative force.
While time will ultimately tell if Say Somethin’ breaks Pemberton through to the same hipster crowd that embraces Sharon Jones –- and that could be doubtful considering that neo-soul is somehow more cooler than jazz-rock skronk –- one thing is for sure. Despite the modern sound and production, this LP could have easily come out at virtually any point from 1980 onward. Heck, there’s even a cover of Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)”, which is probably the talking point for the album. Sadly, Pemberton falters here: she simply can’t do blue-eyed soul, and the song seems tentative and unsure of itself somehow. However, the selection choice is interesting; in taking a track that was originally sung by men, her version comes across as a manifesto for female liberation, as though there are certain things that she won’t let a partner do with her. It’s a “no means no” anthem. Or it seems to be. Yes, there’s all of the talk of using the body, but not the soul. Still, even though the cover doesn’t really work well, it takes on a different colour with a woman singing it. Points for that, at least. It’s something to think about.
The rest of the album, the originals then, are generally quite strapping, save for the odd grappling now and then. The album begins with a ballad, the low-key “For You”, which offers a tasty Rhodes piano lick –- and there’s no keyboard sound out there that is as beautiful as the Rhodes. While the start of the record could seem unassuming as a result of the choice to start with a slow simmer, thing really jump from there. “Deeper” is both soulful and bluesy, even though the verses are rather blah. “Say Somethin’”, the title track, comes across as being a lost song from the Doobie Brothers around their Minute By Minute era. (The Doobies, at that point in their career, featured members who used to be in Steely Dan.) “Don’t Waste Your Time” is an intriguing blend of blues, R&B and jazz rock. “Freedom Time”, meanwhile, is the album’s one moment of pure funk, getting deep down and dirty, with grit to spare. Easily, this sounds like an outtake from Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, another Album of the Year Grammy winner. The Rhodes returns for “Hello Love”, which is a searing ballad that offers a seductive slither. “Do It to It” is a full on fusion piece, the sort of thing that would scorch in a live setting. And on it goes, but one of the record’s standouts is at the very end: “What I Got” is a rolling number that shifts midway through the song that sticks in your ear long after the LP is over, an afterimage of sorts.
If there’s one thing that Pemberton and her band aren’t afraid of, it’s stretching out. Four of the album’s 10 tracks easily exceed the five-minute mark. Again, that might speak to how this might play out in a concert – and, after hearing this, I would be very curious to hear Pemberton’s pipes at a festival, which is what this record feels built for. Her backing band is serviceable, but not commanding, and that seems to be deliberate so that the focus is on Pemberton’s singing. However, whatever faults Say Somethin’ may have, I tend to have a soft spot for this kind of thing. (Yes, I own all of Steely Dan’s albums and have a good chunk of the Chicago backcatalogue on vinyl. Sniff your nose at my tastes, if you want.) Pemberton gets the benefit of the doubt, even though there are a couple of songs where the choruses are meant to take your breath away, and the verses are merely just the vehicle to get you there.
There’s a stickiness to this record, and despite the fact that this all feels as though it’s been done before, there’s enough on this platter to warrant a hearty recommendation. Even though you, perhaps, already have this album, just by a different outfit, Pemberton is enough of a presence to keep you enraptured. Plus, jazz rock fusion tends to take a back seat these days – Steely Dan hasn’t put out a new album in about a decade now – so anything that’s this fun and retro is bound to please followers of this type of sound. Basically, even though Pemberton stumbles every now and then, she clearly is well on her way to developing her own brand of music, and maybe on the next album, she’ll be a true dynamic force. Until then, Say Somethin’ is actually pretty darn tootin’ good, and that, my friends, is probably saying something.