Album: McKay

McKay, Go Beat
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The Independent Culture

The Bronx songwriter Stephanie McKay has been putting together a diverse CV in recent years, singing with such as Tricky, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, and playing guitar in Kelis's band. Now she's ventured even further afield, working with producer Fuzzface, the name chosen by Geoff Barrow for his first collaboration outside Portishead. In a landscape of ghastly "divas" who routinely confuse embellishment with emotion, the result sounds like the best soul debut since Macy Gray. Eschewing ludicrous vocal contortions in favour of simple, impassioned lead parts and her own carefully layered banks of backing vocals, McKay actually sounds as though she's trying to convey emotional distress, rather than show off. At its best, on tracks like the brooding trip-hop soul groove "Tell Him" and funk strut "Think of You", she and Barrow devise a blend of ancient and modern soul modes that's both authentic and refreshingly original. Her Seventies influences are obvious everywhere - in the blissful, soaring Marvin Gaye-like layers of vocals, the Sly Stone-style itchy clavinet and occasional croaky squeal, and the string and horn arrangements and extravagant metaphors of "How Long", which recall some of Gamble & Huff's more dramatic work with The O'Jays, while the modern elements - the trip-hop beats, scratchy vinyl effects, turntable scratching and suchlike - are carefully woven into the fabric of the grooves, rather than strangling them. Her languidly passionate voice, meanwhile, is perhaps most profitably employed on Bernice Johnson Reagon's civil-rights spiritual, "Echo", where she even provides her own choral shading. An album that oozes star quality.