Slow Train Soul: Illegal Cargo

John Bergstrom

Slow Train Soul

Illegal Cargo

Label: Tommy Boy
US Release Date: 2004-04-06
UK Release Date: Available as import

Slow Train Soul are all about style. You can see it in the neon-drenched, attitude-heavy photos on the sleeve of their debut album, Illegal Cargo. It's there in the more austere photos and line drawings in the insert booklet as well. British singer/lyricist Lady Z and Danish producer Morten Varano exude a sharp, European cool. They look like they've been out all night at the most posh dance club, making the scene. And their music sounds like they've just gotten back to their ultramodern pad and kicked back on their black leather sofa with the finest hand-rolled cigarettes. Illegal Cargo is so sleek, you half expect it not to play on any stereo that isn't Bang & Oulfsen.

As un-trendy as it may be in 2004, it's almost impossible to consider Illegal Cargo without mentioning Massive Attack and Tricky, whose minimal, midtempo groove and erotic detachment are obviously big influences. Come to it, Slow Train Soul work so hard at getting the right image and atmosphere across that a listener's considerations of substance and musicality seem like afterthoughts. Thankfully, Lady Z and Varano haven't forgotten that a sexy package will get only so far. While Illegal Cargo is far from a masterpiece, it includes enough high points to make it worthwhile, and shows a lot of promise for future releases.

Most albums start at their strongest and then either maintain or fade; Illegal Cargo peaks gradually, with the best bits in the middle. "Slow Train" and "In the Black of Night" attempt to establish credibility and muscle with a slinky bassline and a streetwise conscience, respectively. Lady Z belts out the words ("In the black of night / I heard 'em shoutin' murder") with her best "don't mess" edginess, and the effect, while danceable, is more sterile than soulful. "Tell Me Somethin'" works in a dancehall rhythm but still can't transcend the pedestrian.

Everything changes, though, when Lady Z lets down her guard and gives in to emotions and romance. "Naturally" is easily the album's best track, and what a stunner it is. Varano lays down simple a double bass riff and swings it just so with gentle percussion, while Lady Z sings a beautiful celebration of a love built on self-empowerment: "Loving you is like lovin' me / It just comes naturally". When Varano brings in trumpet and strings on the chorus, it's nothing short of sublime. "Naturally" deserves to be a radio hit, and is ripe for some slammin' club mixes to boot.

The next few songs maintain the languid, trippy vibe, and are almost as good. "Stoned Rays" lives up to its title with cascading piano, percussion and strings: quiet storm at its best. "Inner City Woman" seems like a wake up call to the Sex & the City set, "[w]astin' all your time with your superficial bliss". With its easy, uptempo groove, it recalls Gil Scott-Heron's 1970s work with Brian Jackson. "Twisted Cupid" is another yearning love song, underscoring Lady Z's vulnerability with a stark piano figure. These four tracks are where Illegal Cargo earns its money.

It's back to the inoffensive but mundane from there on out. "Intuition" is a pop attempt that doesn't impress nearly as much as the subtler songs, while "Trail of Dawn" is too long and repetitious for a non-dancefloor setting. In the end, Illegal Cargo is like a baseball player who grounds out twice and then hits a big home run: the good bits outshine the average ones, and you can't help but be excited for the next at-bat.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.