Review: Lianne La Havas – “Is Your Love Big Enough?”

July 10, 2012 2 comments

South London born Lianne La Havas makes music that bears the distinct vestige of her influences. Not so much derivative, but of affectionate reference. Born of a Jamaican mother who provided a healthy diet of American soul and R&B, and a Grecian father (in case you were wondering what mixture bred that lovely ecru pigment) who educated her in the skills of guitar and piano work, La Havas’ path was laid out like a Yellow Brick Road of musical eminence. But, Is Your Love Big Enough? comes off the (twice clicked) heels of major buzz from her national media (a BBC Sound of 2012 nod), a fairly popular single featuring bluesman Willy Mason (“No Room for Doubt”), and two definitive EP’s (2011’s Lost & Found and February’s Forget). So, the niceties of her understated appeal seemingly end with this debut, right?

Surprisingly, you’d never be able to tell that this is the 22 year old singer-songwriter’s first go around at a full length. From jump, “Don’t Wake Me Up” lulls it’s way into frame with some pitch-perfect vocal harmonies and some haunting keyboard inflections. Almost akin to a more baroque Jill Scott interlude, if you will. The following title track boasts a more folk-y side, while still finding room for some noticeable, while not distracting, 808 kicks. That balance between old composition and modern pastiche is a welcome theme throughout. Still, La Havas’ voice and command sweeps all of this into one neat pile. She’ll lift her exclamation to a contained howl, like on the latter track, and swiftly slide her voice down to a conversational croon, like on the stellar “Au Cinema”. She finds her comfort zone somewhere between the thick moan of Adele and the fleeting bellow of Sade Adu. Lofty comparisons (obviously) that she doesn’t quite exemplify, but certainly touches on.

And, this is all nice and generally inoffensive, but it can occasionally border on the unpleasantly saccharine. While one cannot ignore her lyrical prowess on heavily topical and personal tracks like “Tease Me” and “Age”, there’s a tentativeness to much of her approach that seems lacking. What I tend to attribute that to is her working within the limited fabric of her song structures. Major chords digress into soft minors at various (almost too perfect) intervals, climax’s lift and depress mid-song like the lungs of a sprinter rounding into the final straightaway and, more importantly, the ebb and flow of her arrangements, while conceptually mature, are predictable over the course of 12 tracks.

I refer back to the songwriting, though, as I major reason why I can overlook many of these shortcomings. “Gone” features a revelatory Lianne adroitly lamenting, “I heard enough fairy tales back in my youth, so just stop biting your nails and take the painful truth.” And, on the aforementioned “Age”, she even confronts the conflict of her affection for “younger men” while pining for the love of a man who’s “old enough to be [her] father”: “So is it such a problem that he’s old? As long as he does whatever he’s told. I’m glad that it’s just my heart that he stole, and left my dignity alone.” La Havas even manages to make an intimate Scott Matthews cover sound as though she’d penned it herself. That inclusive quality will supersede many of her technical abilities.

Is Your Love Big Enough? sits on an ethereal platform for most of it’s running time, slowly wafting in and out of dreamy tunes and confessional monologues. It’s a gorgeous record when it can catch you off guard, though, it rarely does. But, that doesn’t hinder any of the enjoyment, and certainly doesn’t condemn it to background “Barnes & Nobles intercom” fodder. Sometimes an album just wants a little bit of your time to tell its story and politely be on its way. Lianne does that here, and I wouldn’t mind her visiting again.

8.2/10

Is Your Love big Enough? is in stores and on iTunes now.