Hannah Williams & the Affirmations' '50 Foot Woman' Is Full of Soul
Hannah Williams & the Affirmations, given a boost by Jay-Z, successfully negotiate the hazards of retro-soul on 50 Foot Woman.
50 Foot Woman
Hannah Williams & The Affirmations
18 October 2019
Practitioners of retro-soul – or retro any-kind-of-music, really -- walk a fine line. Staying faithful to the old school sound is vital. But if an artist is too paint-by-numbers, they'll get called out for it by critics who think they're bloodless imitators. Bringing something new to the creative table can revitalize the music, and maybe even wow those critics. But if you go too far, you risk losing the fans who liked you because you were old school in the first place.
It's a bit of a dilemma.
On their new album, 50 Foot Woman, Hannah Williams & the Affirmations, a British soul band based in Bristol, are mostly successful in walking this line.
Williams captured the world's attention by capturing the attention of Jay-Z. After producer No I.D. played the rapper the Affirmations' "Late Nights & Heartbreaks", Jay-Z was inspired to sample Williams' impassioned vocal from the song on the title track of 4:44, his response album to Beyoncé's Lemonade. Suddenly, Hannah Williams' voice was everywhere.
50 Foot Woman is the sound of Hannah Williams & the Affirmations taking the good fortune they received via Jay-Z and running with it. The opening title track gets the album off to a great start. "50 Foot Woman" is a rave-up that is both soulful and rocking. Williams' vocals are front and center, of course. But the song also offers tasty backing vocals from Victoria Klewin and Hannah Nicholson and a solid workout from everyone in the band, including horn players Liam Treasure and Tom Taylor. Eurythmics fans could easily liken "50 Foot Woman" to "Would I Lie to You?", the explosive opening track of Annie and Dave's 1985 pop-soulfest, Be Yourself Tonight.
The Affirmations easily keep up the momentum with the slinky "I Can't Let This Slip Away" and the anthemic "The Only Way Out Is Through", both of which are album highlights. "Tablecloth" slows the proceedings down a bit, but it is enlivened by Williams' vocals and nice guitar work by Adam Holgate.
James Graham, who plays various keyboards and some guitar, is the primary songwriter on 50 Foot Woman, and he mostly tries to remain on the staying faithful side of the equation. The most unusual track on the album, "What Can We Do?", was written by backup singer Klewin. "What Can We Do?" features a complex vocal intro and socially conscious lyrics. It might be a bit prog for old school soul fans, but "What Can We Do?" makes for an interesting departure.
Seeing the song titles "How Long?" and "Hourglass" on the 50 Foot Woman tracklist might lead some listeners to wonder if they're about to be treated to Ace and Squeeze covers. The answer is no, though it is intriguing to imagine how the Affirmations would cover those tunes. Both Graham originals, "How Long?" is a driving rocker, while "Hourglass" is an easygoing late-album delight.
Despite a few songs that feel somewhat generic, 50 Foot Woman provides plenty of evidence that Hannah Williams & the Affirmations will survive the dilemmas of being a retro-soul band with great aplomb.