Angela McCluskey, now known for that “Breathe” commercial for Mitsubishi with Telepopmusik, recently opened up a string of dates for Neil and Tim Finn in North America. The brothers, who were in Split Enz, Crowded House, and who then reunited for the premiere Finn Brothers album nearly a decade ago, played a great set when they were in Toronto before the Massey Hall crowd. But nothing seemed to one-up the band’s choice of its very appealing, personal, and totally soulful opening act. Angela McCluskey, the former lead singer of Wild Colonials, stole the show with a brief set that even featured her accidentally falling backwards over a stage monitor and tumbling back on her arse. The trooper that she is, though, ended the song flat on her back and having a hearty laugh at herself.
It’s that same character and soul and talent that makes McCluskey’s solo debut one of the sleeper picks of the year. Although she might come off as a cross between Macy Gray’s raspy and sometimes quirky delivery and the sultry style of Cerys Matthews (Catatonia), McCluskey is able to bridge American pop with British soul for an intriguing, engaging, and impressive 13 songs. And never once does she drop the ball, even if she’s tumble-prone. The strings and orchestral Brit style are all over the opening “It’s Been Done” as McCluskey carries the song with her special and unique delivery. The slow romantic groove is part pop and part R&B with a reggae moment or two as she soars with a voice that seems suited for future duets with Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch.
The slower and melodic gem found in “Somebody Got Lucky” shows her style and range, coming off a tad like Sheryl Crow circa The Globe Sessions. The Scottish-born singer shows her chops on this early high moment as country-ish guitars add some more flavor to what is already a zesty song. The difference between Gray and McCluskey is that Gray would opt for longer funk-a-fied grooves whereas McCluskey goes down more of a soul rock road with tremendous results! The slow piano opening into “Love Is Stronger Than Death” resembles something MacCulloch might have done for his Slideling album, with some percussion in the distance of the gospel-like tune only Annie Lennox might attempt. “In our lives we hunger for things we cannot touch / All the thoughts unuttered, all the feelings unexpressed”, she sings before the tune breaks out into a tenser Stevie Nicks or Kate Bush-esque format.
The album’s highlight might come across in the slow-building soul pop of “Know It All”. Here McCluskey is the end all and be all of the song despite some great guitar work that colors the tune. It’s distinctly British in terms of the chorus, especially with the string use and cymbals adding a lot of oomph. If there’s any drawback, it could be the rather abrupt ending. But I’m just nitpicking. A doo-wop style graces “A Thousand Drunken Dreams” with McCluskey again front and center and wearing her heart on her sleeve. Another fine soul ditty is the somber and rather depressing “Sleep on It”, which, as she would probably introduce, is about being on the wrong side or waking up on the wrong side of the bed. Later on this is revisited somewhat on the hair-rising, spine-tingling, and brilliant “Wrong Side”. The only track where she seems to be a parody of Brit soul is on the Commitments-sounding “Perfect Girl Eleven”, although it still manages to swing quite well overall.
McCluskey ventures into country soul territory a la Lucinda Williams or Shelby Lynne on the sleeper of the album “Dirty Pearl” that just rolls along to near perfection. A mediocre moment comes during the Portisheadish, trip-hop lounge-like “This Night”, which is average compared to the high quality numbers here. Infinitely better is the lovely little jazz-cum-soul of “Long Live I” as the drum brushing can be heard lightly in the distance. A “Hidden Song” is tacked on but by now you realize that McCluskey probably needs Telepopmusik a hell of a lot less than they need her. My 14th Top 10 pick of the year!