Michael Kiwanuka

(Copyright © 2019 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of Use )
Home Again (2012), 5/10
Love & Hate (2016), 6/10
Kiwanuka (2019), 6.5/10

British black singer and songwriter Michael Kiwanuka delivered a much hyped debut album, Home Again (2012), although the songs mostly exuded nostalgia for soul-rock of the 1960s and 1970s, with carefully chosen string arrangements a` la Van Morrison, but not much groundbreaking material. Tell Me a Tale is the standout. The real revelation is his voice: a crooner in the vein of Solomon Burke who can turn anything into a catchy song.

Love & Hate (Polydor, 2016), produced by Danger Mouse, boasts elaborate arrangements that push the sound well beyond the Van Morrison comparison. The ten-minute opener, Cold Little Heart, is a rousing anthem that is first presented as a version of latter-day Pink Floyd with string orchestra, languid jazz-rock guitar and new-agey gospel choir, and then as a catchy soul-rock ballad. The eight-minute Love & Hate begins with a hypnotic mantra and then settles into a romantic singalong over a gentle shuffling rhythm while a choir repeats the mantra. The production work, notably the lengthy cacophonous psychedelic coda, is the main reason to listen to the seven-minute Father's Child. However, the bulk of the album consists of simpler songs. Black Man In A White World blends a driving choral gospel refrain, plaintive strings and syncopated percussion. The energetic blues One More Night evokes both the Animals and the Spencer Davis Group with a dancing sax a` la King Curtis. Being a soul singer, Kiwanuka inevitably slides into the languid ballad, a genre in which only I'll Never Love stands out.

The songs on Kiwanuka (Interscope, 2019) are simpler and more user-friendly with more impressive use of choirs, horns, strings and solos. Nonetheless, this is still a walk down memory lane. The catchy, upbeat You Ain't The Problem winks at Tamla Motown's pop-soul of the 1960s as well as to Kendrick Lamar, and Rolling could be a number of psychedelic-tinged garage-rock of the Yardbirds with the Temptations on backing vocals, and Hero has echoes of Tommy Roe and Tommy James besides Ennio Morricone-esque female counterpoint. There are creative arrangements in the dreamy raga-influenced gospel I've Been Dazed, with an Hey Jude-style of jamming and echoes of vintage Traffic, in the soulful Stevie Wonder-esque Final Days, the best use of piano, choir and strings and samples, and in the closing Broadway-style aria Light, with echoes of Aquarius (from the 1967 musical "Hair") that morph into a sorrowful lament and into a ghostly choral singalong. Pink Floyd-ian crescendos propel both the guitar-driven Interlude (Loving The People) and the piano-driven finale of Solid Ground, one of the most emotional songs (that begins like austere chamber pop). On the slow, mellow (and much inferior) side, Piano Joint (This Kind Of Love) harkens back to the 1950s pop of the Brill Building (replete with piano, strings and choir), and Living In Denial has the kind of breezy choir found in film soundtracks of the 1960s. The seven-minute Hard To Say Goodbye is virtually a tribute to Burt Bacharach. Kiwanuka can turn anything into a memorable melody, and here the arrangements do him justice. The material, however, is fundamentally a hodgepodge of dejavu moments in the history of music.

(Copyright © 2019 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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