Album: Fried

Fried, LONDON
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The Independent Culture

Few pop musicians have the patience of David Steele. Back in the Eighties, he and Andy Cox, his fellow former member of The Beat, spent a couple of years searching for the right singer for their new group Fine Young Cannibals, before settling, almost as a last resort, on the distinctive talents of Roland Gift. The results were seismic: their blend of old-soul attitude and cutting-edge new-tech methods proved globally popular, going on to accrue some nine million album sales before the group foundered in the early Nineties.

Following their demise, Steele believed it would take just a couple more years to find another exceptional talent to front his new songs. That was in 1994. By 2001, he had all but given up the search when he was introduced to Jonté Short, one of the featured singers at the Ebenezer Tabernacle New Baptist Church in New Orleans. Three years on, the duo's debut as Fried finally arrives, its passionate beauty a testament to Steele's picky perfectionism: in Short, he's unearthed a vocal diamond, a secularised gospel singer with more than a touch of Aretha Franklin about her timbre and phrasing. More than just the new Macy Gray or Joss Stone, she sounds like the real real thing, the long-awaited heiress to Irma Thomas's unassailable position as the Soul Queen of New Orleans.

As before, Steele's arrangements are rooted in the timeless verities of early Seventies soul and funk, from the staccato, skeletal groove of "Getaway", to the languid "Ain't You the One (I've Been Looking for)", on which his guitar-playing recalls the liquid Southern-soul lines of the Miami legend Little Beaver. Elsewhere, the tiny little curlicues of sitar and breaths of flute on several tracks conjure fond memories of legions of soft-soul groups. The single most significant influence, though, is clearly Willie Mitchell's peerless productions for Al Green (whose 1992 album Don't Look Back was co-written and produced by Steele), particularly the subtle string tints that bring such an eerie calm to tracks such as "Things Change" and the opening "When You Get out of Jail".

The latter track is one of a handful co-written by Short, to which she brings a vivid apprehension of social pressures, most winningly on "Sugar Water Days", where her recollections of childhood, despite her family's depleted circumstances, are lit by a warmth and happiness that speaks volumes about the value of community: "I never slept alone till I left home/ All my clothes were hand-me-downs/ We stayed outside under streetlights/ Watching the same boys fight."

But it's Short's voice that's the star here, pure and impassioned on the lead lines, but also displaying great warmth and depth when stacked to provide the stirring backing vocals. Debut album of the year, anyone?

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