Janelle Monáe, Koko, London
Brandon Flowers, BBC Maida Vale, London
Bowie, Prince, Chaplin – this brilliant R&B star draws on diverse influences to reconnect with the spirit of vintage soul
Sunday 12 September 2010
With her Elizabethan ruff and Eraserhead quiff, Janelle Monáe is something else. The 24-year-old from Kansas City doesn't look like the typical R&B princess. Indeed, she doesn't do "typical" whatsoever.
The Monáe phenomenon has reached parts other, more generic singers simply can't: it's fascinating to witness the number of R&B-phobes who, bowled over by the single "Tightrope" and her dickie-bowed androgyny in the accompanying video, hail Janelle as the exception, as though in the spirit of "some of my best friends are R&B artists...". And you wouldn't get the next cookie-cutter Ciara or robo-Rihanna opening for Of Montreal and No Doubt, let alone winning Ascap's Vanguard Award.
Monáe's biggest London gig to date, or "emotion picture" as her compère has it, begins with Hitchcockian opening credits and three shady monastic figures, one of whom suddenly whips off a cowl to wild screams – the time Monáe spent studying drama in New York and dreaming of Broadway clearly didn't go to waste.
It was her decision to move to Atlanta, however, that was the making of this singular starlet. She may be signed to P Diddy's Bad Boy label, but her encounter with Big Boi of Outkast (on whose Idlewild album she guested) was the formative Monáe moment, inspiring her to launch her own Wondaland arts collective and generally get her freak on.
Her genuinely extraordinary debut album The ArchAndroid: Suites II and III (the missing first part of the narrative being her Fritz Lang-inspired 2007 EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite) is set in the year 2719, with Monáe's alter-ego Cindy Mayweather a messianic heroine who arrives to liberate enslaved androids. (The meaning of this allegory barely needs spelling out).
Monáe's Afrofuturist imagery recalls the sci-fi-meets-Egyptology fantasy of Earth Wind & Fire and the all-aboard-the-mothership utopianism of Parliament-Funkadelic. Her music is a similar best-case-scenario blend of the old and new. Monáe reconnects with the spirit of vintage soul, while not merely dealing in Ronsonised reproduction. Try to imagine what a Willie Mitchell production might have sounded if he'd had Timbaland's technical armoury at his disposal.
The influences at play are many and varied. "Cold War" seems to echo Marianne Faithfull's "Broken English"; "Dance or Die" quotes Dionne's "Walk on By" so fast you almost don't notice, her syllable-juggling skills suggesting a grounding in jazz scat, and there are heavy lashings of Seventies Stevie and Bowie. However, the single biggest influence is Prince.
If she hadn't made it public by covering "Let's Go Crazy" at a tribute show, we'd have guessed anyway. "Neon Gumbo" starts with some backmasked singing straight out of the "Purple Rain" run-out groove (but without the benefit of vinyl, most civilians will never play it backwards to find out what she's saying), while "Mushrooms & Roses", with its charmingly odd lyrics about the love lives of "lonely droids", echoes the acid-drop psych-pop of Around the World in a Day.
There are rare moments when the whole thing drags. The five minutes of showy ululation in her cover of the Charlie Chaplin chestnut "Smile" is tedious: yes, we get it Janelle, you can sing. But the playfulness of songs like "Violet Stars" (sample lyric: "Citizens pull your pants up, and cyborgs pull your pants down!") more than compensates. Part of me wonders whether Atlantic even realises what a talent it has on its hands. It didn't bother sending me a review copy of The ArchAndroid for its May release even though it's blatantly the sort of thing I'd love. No matter. Janelle is one star whose ascent looks unstoppable. Follow the Monáe.
Pitched mercilessly at the middlebrow it may be, but BBC4's repeat of BBC2's I'm in a Rock'n'Roll Band has shed some interesting illumination on the character requirements for each member of the typical group. The lead singer, we learned to nobody's surprise, needs to be the sort of compulsive exhibitionist who, in any other walk of life, would be apprehended by the constabulary for streaking through the shopping precinct.
All of which makes Brandon Flowers (below, left, with Radio 1's Zane Lowe) a moderately fascinating character, because he really isn't like that. Don't let the pink leather suits and peacock feather epaulettes fool you: the Killers frontman is one of the least natural in the game. A devout Mormon boy who treasures his privacy, he has no interest in the infinite possibilities of hedonism available to a man in his position, nor does he seem motivated by any great world-changing mission.
Therefore, something else must be driving him to do this. And driven he clearly is, to the extent that, when the rest of the brilliant-then-disappointing-then-as-good-as-can-be-expected Killers are in hiatus, he's released a solo debut made of U2-meets-Springsteen songs originally intended for the fourth Killers album proper.
Not that he's completely devoid of stellar qualities. At 8.08pm, a crackle runs through Maida Vale. It isn't a glitch in the century-old wiring, but the natural reaction of a small invited crowd to the luminescence of the famous. His rolled-up red shirt may be cheating (when all his band and crew are in monochrome tones), as do his whiter-than-white teeth, but nevertheless, Flowers has that thing, the glow of the Hollywood A-lister in waiting. ("He's like Ben Affleck!" sighs one Sloaney voice, approvingly.)
And yet, when he's called upon to speak, two songs into this Radio 1 mini-gig, the shy, awkward kid beneath the rock star shell comes to the surface. The song "Magdalena", he awkwardly explains, is about a religious pilgrimage in Mexico – "It's a bit like a marathon... I'm thinking Gatorade are involved" – and his introduction to "Hard Enough" is so self-effacing that there's an outbreak of stifled giggles.
"It's not as bombastic as when the Killers do it," he warns before a contractually obliged acoustic version of "When You Were Young", which only reminds you how great it sounds when it is played with bombast, "but we've found the beauty at its heart". He speaks with the painful nerves of an 11-year-old called up to read a passage from the Bible in front of assembly.
"Only the Young", with its startling line "redemption keep my sheets clean tonight", is followed by the equally innuendo-inviting "Swallow It", of which he says, "There was bound to be something controversial on the record... but it didn't even cross my mind when we were writing it, I promise." The funny thing is, I believe him.
As he walks, waving and blinking, away from the spotlight, the still-lingering question remains unanswered: what's driving Brandon Flowers?
Simon decides whether his homeland's national hero, Tom Jones, merits praise or blame.
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