Somewhat a demarcation from his last effort, which saw him tweaking designs on the impromptu riffs of his hip-hop, Charlie Winston’s latest makes a bid for the lush pursuits of folk-accented soul. A virtual unknown in his home country of England, Winston has been working the French circuit since the 2009 release of his major-label debut, Hobo, which turned the singer-songwriter into France’s expat darling overnight. His ironic send-ups of Chaplin and romantic flirtations with Bohemian life have been charming his French fan base for years now.
Because his work is at once undeniably British in its appropriation of Brill Building pop and very French in its studied artiness, it goes without saying how such an artist could find himself in the interstices of many ubiquitous constructs of popular music. But Winston manages an efficient balance between various genres, making roadwork between folk, pop, blues and electronica. His latest, Curio City, pushes for a kind of aestheticism reserved for the more aberrant of artists. It’s a welcome growth of invention and skill, the singer finally spanning the range of his abilities as a musician who has a keen ear for a good groove and a catchy tune.
If his last album, 2011’s Running Still, fell just a little short, it’s only because Winston was seemingly preoccupied with the more rhythmic structures of his tunes, at times eschewing the melodic sensibilities inherent in his talents in order to experiment freely with beats and grooves. Curio City finds an intermediate balance, a steady synthesis that mixes perfectly a host of disparate elements that gives the melody priority while never skimping on the beats. Moreover, Winston elevates his usual production of rough-hewn beats to a level of supreme sophistication, finding a luxurious turn in the deep, sensual throb of his lusty grooves. That the album was, in part, inspired by such flicks like Blade Runner and Drive will perhaps escape most listeners; these iridescent tunes are seemingly bereft of the darker energies that such films are charged with. Yet, there’s a certain futuristic-chic to the proceedings which illuminate Winston’s songs of love and anger.
Here, the electronic shadings that fold into the supple rhythms find a winsome counterpoint to the folkish and languid melodies. Numbers like “Truth”, a sultry loop of guitar strums and Soul II Soul machinations, point the way to a dance floor sensibility with which the album is heavily pronounced. On “Say Something”, the moody airs that hang over the pounding of drums signal a rise in tension that finds urgency in the galloping rhythms. Winston’s newfound exploits in pop music serve him well. Rather than make a vain bid for hipster appeal, the singer finds a most necessary infrastructure to lay the pathways between experiment and accessibility.
“Another Trigger”, a rediscovery of rhythm and cadence, finds the artist exploring the tricky blues of Southern twang and the mystic slips of a tabla. In its searching rhythm, the comically curious samples of splutter and breath are multi-tracked to a hushed and nimble loop. Elsewhere, when the body takes precedent over mind, the hip-hopped and chopped funk of “Just Sayin’” palpitates with sex and heat, the cosseted sentiments of jealousy tucked beneath the pulse of a bleeding heart. Indeed, the chromatic wash of a futuristic energy glistens over these 15 numbers, but stirring beneath are the time-honored signatures of classic pop music.
As well, metaphor and word-play — the requisite tools in Winston’s artillery of songcraft — demonstrate an almost refined structure of phrasing and delivery. “Lately”, a surly barb aimed at a former band mate and disguised as a breakup song, employs the imagery of congested traffic to discuss the miscommunications between two people. On “Just Sayin’”, the singer angles in a line so that it rebounds with tuneful vengeance: “Slow down, you talk too fast / you’ve gotta pick up the pieces, make the good times last.” Here and elsewhere, Winston manages a simplicity of words, elegantly arranged, the touch-and-go nuances of the language keeping measure with the shake of a groove. Mired in the twisted funk are the pondering sentiments of a lounging homebody and Winston’s musings on love do not so much as cut deep as they stain like the poisonous drench of spilled wine.
For all its funked up and rhythmic pulls, Curio City opts to forego the night club for the stuffier comforts of the bedroom. No matter how strong the call to the dance floor, the album occupies the headspace of passionate obsessives who’d much rather do more thinking than dancing; a night on the town conceived as a head trip. And perhaps all points of travel remain in the confinements of Winston’s home. Bedroom dancing in the cities of his interior, the singer turns all havoc and joy into a blues-rubbed expedition of the soul.