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.