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Album reviews: Paolo Nutini, Kelis, The Afghan Whigs, Rodney Crowell, Mayra Andrade, Smoke Fairies


Paolo Nutini Caustic Love (Atlantic)

Five years on from the light, life-affirming Sunny Side Up, Paolo Nutini reins back that album’s enjoyable diversions into Dixieland, ska and folk music for a more concentrated attack on his core qualities as soulman. It’s an unqualified success: Caustic Love may be the best UK R&B album since the 1970s blue-eyed-soul heyday of Rod Stewart and Joe Cocker.

Not only is Nutini reaching the feral depths once plumbed by those raw-throated voices, but he’s locked into the spirit of that most golden of soul eras, with subtly updated adaptations of classic soul styles. It’s a move signalled by his use of the refrain of Bettye Lavette’s soul classic “Let Me Down Easy” as the basis for his own emotive confessional, and triumphantly confirmed in the brooding urban plaint “Iron Sky”, a stirring blend of conscious-soul subject with deep-soul style, like Percy Sledge singing Curtis Mayfield. The limber “Scream (Funk My Life Up)” and the Janelle Monáe duet “Fashion”, meanwhile, tap into the muscular funk of James Brown and Sly Stone. “Looking for Something” is a Bill Withers-esque slice of soul sermonising, while the frisky New Orleans second-line rhythm of “Numpty” recalls the string of infectious hits Lee Dorsey cut with Allen Toussaint.

That song’s lyric theme – “All the talk about the ring and the baby gets me every time/ Am I big enough, strong enough, to walk along your line?” – exemplifies the self-effacing, apologetic tone of the album overall. Nutini  is well aware of his failings, but it’s his desire to overcome them, “to be a better man”, that enables him to tap into the deeper emotional reserves that drive a deep-soul masterpiece such as “One Day”, where he rides a musical topography ranging from solo staccato organ to full symphonic-soul choral climax, with the album’s most dynamic vocal performance.


Download: One Day; Numpty; Let Me Down Easy; Iron Sky; Fashion

Kelis Food (Ninja Tune)

Following the poor performance of 2010’s electropop album, Flesh Tone, the well-travelled Kelis now washes up at Ninja Tune with an album more in tune with her natural strengths, thanks largely to arrangements by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek which blend rolling funk grooves with punchy horn riffs. The food theme – Kelis now markets her own range of sauces – is reflected in titles such as “Friday Fish Fry” and “Biscuits n’ Gravy”, which have little link to the songs’ themes of love, loss and destiny – but when they’re as infectious as the blend of Afrobeat horn stabs and spiralling bassline on “Jerk Ribs”, who cares? Though occasionally subdued, Kelis brings a moody character to “Runnin’”, while Sitek offers subtle variations on the funk-soul style, edging into salsoul and swamp-rock on “Cobbler” and “Rumble”.


Download: Jerk Ribs; Rumble; Runnin’

The Afghan Whigs Do to the Beast (Sub Pop)

It has been 16 years since the last Afghan Whigs album, but Do to the Beast suggests that during  that hiatus, leader Greg Dulli  has simply focused more fiercely  on his driving passions. It’s full  of the same kind of obsessional, masochistic love plaints, delivered in strained, soulful tones at the top of Dulli’s range, over bulldozer-rock riffs. “Parked Outside” and “Matamoros” find him torn between attraction and rejection, desire and revulsion, in a way best summed up in “Royal Cream” as “love demeaned by love”. But while his obsession is sincere, the oppressive weight of the arrangements, freighted with heavy rock guitars and declamatory drums, occasionally fattened by dramatic strings, makes them hard to engage with on a personal level.


Download: Parked Outside; Algiers; The Lottery

Rodney Crowell Tarpaper Sky (New West)

One of the advantages of genre songwriting is that you’re allowed to mature without being hostage to juvenile fortune, as Rodney Crowell demonstrates. Crowell’s on a roll, following excellent collaborations with Emmylou Harris and Mary Karr, and Tarpaper Sky finds him relaxed and confident in his craft, using echoes of “My Back Pages” and “Forever Young” on songs that reflect on former glories (“The Long Journey Home”, “The Flyboy & the Kid”). Several songs evoke the joy of sustained devotion and the heartbreak of separation, through wounding lines such  as “I just can’t get over how she shed me like a tear”; but as the frisky cajun two-step “Fever on the Bayou” and country-rocker “Frankie Please” attest, his head’s still turned by the belle of the ball.


Download: The Long Journey Home; God I’m Missing You; Frankie Please; Fever on the Bayou

Mayra Andrade Lovely Difficult (Columbia)

Lovely Difficult: it sounds like one of those new compound emotions computers can supposedly recognise in the human face. Aptly, it evokes the subtleties of style and emotion employed by Mayra Andrade on this engaging album. Sung in four languages, it’s more cosmopolitan pop than world music, despite the use of Cape Verde modes such as batuque,  the waltz-time rhythm driving  the lovely “Ténpu Ki Bai”. “Ilha De Santiago” and “Téra Lonji” pay playful tribute to Andrade’s homeland, while “Les Mots D’Amour” and “A-mi N Kre-u Txeu (I Love You)” explore reggae and bossa nova rhythms. While not exactly saudade, there’s a desolate edge to her delivery that hints at pain borne with experience: as she observes, “There’s a beauty in the pity that the empty surrounds.”


Download: Ténpu Ki Bai; We Used to Call It Love; Build It Up; Ilha De Santiago

Smoke Fairies Smoke Fairies (Full Time Hobby)

Smoke Fairies’ fourth album finds the English duo taking a tangent from their folk/blues approach with the help of a young producer, Kristofer Harris, who gives them a textured sound ranging from  the Bat for Lashes-style rustic-mysticism of “Misty Versions” to the gentle muscularity of “We’ve Seen Birds” – folk-rock driven  by Spector drums. That song is Jessica Davies’ apology to musical partner Katherine Blamire for suggesting the duo might split – a notion whose rejection is justified by “Hope Is Religion” and “Shadow Inversions”. The former, an affirmation of introversion with a piquant Middle Eastern flavour, provides the groundwork for the latter, whose blend of ghostly vocals over a goth grind cries out for inclusion on some vampire-romance soundtrack.


Download: We’ve Seen Birds; Shadow Inversions; Hope Is Religion; Misty Versions