Look out, World. The Godfather of British Soul is back and he's funkier than ever.
We usually give British writer Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797-1839) credit for the classic line, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." I, however, have always been partial to the anonymous version, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder for someone else." If you're in the music business, balancing your absences from the spotlight could be as tricky as coordinating your performances. Release too many albums in too short a time span and you're in danger of saturating the market for your style. That's when Bayly's original quote is most applicable -- in other words, give your audience a chance to miss you. On the other hand, letting too much time elapse could be worse. While you're in the lab concocting your new record, your fans could be at the club grinding to somebody else's hit single or answering the phone to another band's ringtone. That's when the anonymous version of Bayly's quote starts to sound less cynical.
I bet Omar, the singer known as the Godfather of British Soul, understands what it means to fight for (and hold on to) an audience. For one thing, Omar isn't the only "Omar" on the music scene. Off the top of my head, I can think of two other successful musicians using the name, or some slight variation thereof. For another thing -- and this, as Redd Foxx's Fred Sanford character used to say on the sit-com Sanford & Son, is the big one: Omar hasn't released an album in several years. His previous joint, 2000's Best by Far, was his fifth, as he continued the imaginative genre-blending soul music he started on his first album, 1990's There's Nothing Like This. I've been wondering if, while Omar was busy touring in the time between Best by Far and his latest endeavor, Sing (If You Want It), his fans grew fonder of Usher, Ne-Yo, and Chris Brown.
Perhaps. But if you give Sing (If You Want It) a whirl in your CD player, you'll see (and hear) that Omar has used his time wisely. Sing (If You Want It) consists of 14 meticulously executed tunes showcasing Omar's sensationally quirky arrangements. Newcomers to Omar's style should find him refreshing, as he offers a decidedly contemporary sound influenced by jazz, dub, funk, reggae, and African rhythms, while enabling comparisons to artists we might call "old school" -- like, for example, Stevie Wonder. The best way to describe this collection is to call it "funky". Each song builds on a singular, distinctive rhythm, adding sonic layers as the tunes progress, and then, before the track is through, filling each speaker with hums, chants, background vocals, choruses, horns, keys, bongos, guitars, strings, handclaps, and strange-yet-somehow-delightfully-appropriate effects.
Here are a few examples. There's the title track's sustained percussive elements, calling upon an addictive rhythm that's sure to be the first thing you notice and the last thing you remember. There's the vocal work in "Kiss It Right", which sounds like the studio housed a thousand Omars who were humming, adlibbing, vamping, and belting the chorus -- and that's in addition to handling drums, bass, and keys! The intro, "Lift Off", is another great example of Omar's ability to hammer out a tight groove. It's a warm up that only gives us a taste of the album's character, yet it underscores the complexity of Omar's music and, in a way, reminds us to appreciate the instrumentation. Each one of these songs would work without any lyrics at all.
Part of the credit for this certainly belongs to Omar, as he produces and arranges his songs and also plays a number of the instruments. The rest belongs to the team of musicians who performed on the album, including: The Aaron Strings Quartet, Max Beesley (drums), Karlos Edwards (bongos), Jim Hunt (saxophone and flute), Len Lawrence (congas), Duncan Mackay (trumpet), Jerry Meehan (bass), Glen Nightingale (guitar), Pino Palladino (guitar), Al Simpson (guitar), and Nichol Thomson (trombone). No doubt, Stevie Wonder's presence (more about that below) is more than welcome (yeah, I know -- that should make the list of Top Understatements of 2006). But perhaps the biggest influence on the Omar sound comes from Omar's brother, Scratch Professor, who co-produces four tracks (the title track, "Kiss It Right", "All for Me", and "Lay It Down") and contributes his expertise on samples, scratches, Rhodes, and acoustic guitar.
Of course, you know what happens to any artist who evokes comparisons to the music of the '70s -- we toss them in the "neo-soul" or "nu-soul" category. Indeed, Omar is highly regarded as the promeginator of "neo-soul" in the UK, making it no surprise that Sing (If You Want It) contains two collaborations with Angie Stone and Common. Omar worked with Ms. Stone on his previous album's remake of William DeVaughn's "Be Thankful for What You Got". Another version of the remake, one with Erykah Badu on vocals, got snagged in the issues that prompt the usual liner note citation, "[Name of Artist] appears courtesy of [Name of Record Label]", but that's another story altogether. At any rate, while I make no secret of my disapproval of neo-soul's ironic position as the default category for genre-defying R&B artists, I love listening to anyone who reminds us of greats like Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, or Earth, Wind & Fire.
Actually, Omar does more than remind us, as shown by his powerful duet with Mr. Stevie Wonder himself, "Feeling You". As the press kit explains it, Stevie Wonder had promised to write a song for Omar back around 1992. And, yeah, I thought the same thing when I was reading it, "1992?" So what do you do when it takes someone more than a decade to make good on a promise, and he or she shows up in your town and calls you with, "Hello, it's me. Yeah, well, it took a little longer than I thought. Can we still get together?" Well, I don't know about you, but if the caller is Stevie Wonder, I'd do the same thing Omar did. I'd be knocking on Stevie's door before he could finish saying "Hello" and I'd be saying, "Hey, no hard feelings. You can't rush perfection." The resulting song, "Feeling You", is worth the wait, featuring Wonder on vocals and keys. As for recollections of Earth, Wind & Fire, check out "Kiss it Right", "Sing", and "Your Mess". On "Your Mess", Omar's lower range reminds me of Maurice White while his higher register almost hits Philip Bailey's pitch. The use of horns throughout the album also help to summon the Earth, Wind & Fire vibe.
The only potential problem with Sing (If You Want It) is the sense that Omar's collaborator's might steal the show. I don't think they ever do, but I kept getting the feeling it could happen. No doubt, having Stevie Wonder on deck raises expectations, as does Angie Stone's work on "All for Me" and "Stylin'", J.C. Bentley's appearance on "Be a Man", and Estelle's rhyme on "Lay It Down". There are times when I think "Feeling You" would have sounded better if Stevie Wonder had sang the whole thing himself and, for that matter, the same goes for a few other Wonder-esque tracks ("Be a Man" and "Ghana Emotion" come to mind here). It's hard to tell whether Wonder was just that good at nailing his parts in "Feeling You" or if the song just fit Wonder's style better.
The one track that definitely regulates Omar to the background is the rap-centric "Gimme Sum", featuring Common, Rodney P, Canitbe, and Ashman. Mainly, "Gimme Sum" practices what Omar has been preaching about sonic diversity. In another song from the album, "It's So...", Omar sings, "Love a reggae beat 'cause it's so... / Love a hip-hop beat 'cause it's so…" The lyrics trail off in the phrase "It's so...", perhaps to signify that the power of music is beyond words or maybe even to play on the phrase itself, as if to say, "It's powerful because it is; its existence is its own validation." Along these lines, "Gimme Sum" works as an individual track, with Common delivering a respectably focused verse, although I admit it's surprising to hear Common flowing to a beat that tends to influence his presentation in lieu of his usual ability to create a separate and distinct cadence from the underlying track. If Common could be a character on the TV Show Heroes, his superpower would be his ability to rhyme over anything -- car alarms, the soup commercial with the "Possibilities" theme, elephants crushing soda cans. Can't you just hear the ads for the show touting the slogan, "Save the hip-hop artist, save the world"? Back to the song "Gimme Sum", the music seems to keep Common in check, which is not a weakness but rather a testament to its potency. The point, though, is that you probably wouldn't have known the song appeared on Omar's album if you weren't listening to it as part of the whole.
Nevertheless, Sing (If You Want It) overflows with Omar's vision, talent, and charm. With diverse subject matter, scintillating arrangements, and high-power collaborations, Omar gives his fans what they need to keep his name in the forefront until his next release.