August 17, 2012 5 comments
The disposition carried with the label “quiet storm” is one of a noticeably subdued manner. The Frankie Beverly and Maze, Sade, Bill Withers and Janet Jackson’s of the late night, lustful FM croon carry with them a binding responsibility to be both emotionally expositional, yet deft in their intonation. Jessie Ware is bound too, but it’s of her own doing. From her breakthrough appearance on SBTRKT’s “Nervous”, (of which she earned her label ink) Ware has effectively fleshed out her niche in conjunction with, not in reaction to, her clearly derivative contemporaries. Her debut, Devotion, is a sleek, fresh reminder of what can happen when an artist takes all of her influences and uses them to progress, rather than simply to reference.
Ware has the talent to be just as compelling as those she’s so reminiscent of as well. There must be something in that UK water, because as far as R&B and soul goes, the Brits (including her equally talented peer, Sampha) have mastered the melding of analog and electronic in a way that avoids sullying the traditional nature of each. Take second single “Running”, which basks in its 80’s, midtown club pomp and glisten. Somewhere between her subverted whisper, seductively repeating the title under an echoed muffle, the song somehow finds a happy medium between Lovers Rock and Rio era Duran Duran. Jessie’s vocals provide a seamless transition between ideas, though, preventing the awkward cacophony that marred similar releases, like Twin Shadow’s Confess or Niki and the Dove’s Instinct.
Ware is a sumptuous songstress. Where a lesser vocal performance might lull a track like “Wildest Moments” into nonexistent palaver, Jessie restrains within the composition, trilling her vowels for prolonged effect. She can also burst with bellowing pastiche of a Beyonce or, more specifically, a triumphant Coko Clemons on tracks like the sultry “Still Love Me”. Her resonant wail isn’t distracting or ceremonious, though. “Night Light” finds Ware utilizing her belt as more of a punctuation than a show-tool. This abstemiousness is, on the surface, a clear sign of the artistic maturity she wears with powerful demure, but also a deep recognition of her place within the production.
That production is a chief asset to the overall continuity of Devotion. Dave Okumu (of The Invisible) handles much of the synth-laden pop that nurtures Jessie’s voice. Along with the synths come Prince-circa-Dirty Mind guitar inflections, like on the Okuma assisted “No To Love” and, more flamboyantly, on latter half of, the downright sexy, “Sweet talk”. Fellow Londoner, and singer-songwriter, Kid Harpoon assists as well, adding an especially smoky docility to penultimate, Alicia Keys-esque ballad “Taking in Water”. All of it flows naturally, though, barely racing above midtempo, but providing instrumentally prescient highs in the wake of its clearly tempered predilection. Julio Bashmore also provides the backdrop to, one of Ware’s more effectively penned singles, “110%”.
Much of the album, in fact, is well-written for what many may dismiss as “floor-filling dance tunes”. Recalling the descriptive alliteration of a seasoned dance/pop purveyor like Robyn. “See it’s been a while, looking in your eyes. I was taken in; taken by surprise. Why did you want me? Why’d you stay so close?” Jessie inquires on the aforementioned “Still Love Me”. She’s not always so revelatory though, as her ambiguous musings often find the same level of compelling introspection. Like on “Swan Song”, where she sings “you cast your spell with stories told. Promises. Will they unfold?” And, while much of her exposition can be taken at face value, her phrasing and word choice (some co-written, of course) is often reactive to the music at hand. The working joints click, though, because Ware’s voice and presence sets the atmosphere.
That’s where Devotion sticks with you: the atmosphere. From the opening title track, to the final string strokes of closer “Something Inside”, there’s an air of introverted discovery amongst, sometimes despaired, instrumentation. It’s hard to know if that was the original concept, seeing that we’ve seen Ware shine on so many more danceable, body-moving affairs, but this fits. For what it is — and by that, I mean an exceptional pop/new wave/R&B/electronic/dance amalgamation — it succeeds, while making reference to many of its predecessors, at being distinctively like nothing else of its ilk. As quiet as the storm may be, this is, undoubtedly, a Jessie Ware album.
[This review is dedicated to the memory of nah_rez, who had her blog life abruptly taken from her by real life]