mike davies march 2013

Given she lived on my doorstep, it seems especially remiss that LAURA MVULA should have slipped beneath my radar, but then RCA hasn’t exactly made great efforts to spread the word on her releases to date. However, after she was shortlisted for this year’s Critics Choicer at the Brits and came fourth in the BBC’s Sound of 2013 poll, it finally seems to have kicked promotion up a few gears.

laura mvula

Raised in Selly Park and Kings Heath, she’s the niece of Carol Pemberton, the founder of Birmingham’s world renowned a capella gospel group Black Voices, joining the line-up in 2005 and performing both solo and close harmony on tours of the UK and Europe. More significantly, a graduate of Birmingham Conservatoire with a degree in composition, she was commissioned her to produce a new piece, Jazz Suite, for the group which received its premiere last July at the Winchester Festival.

Married to Themba Mvula, baritone with prestigious Birmingham classical choir Ex Cathedra, she’s been active on the local music scene for some years, leading vocal workshops in citywide projects and summer schools, most notably composing and performing songs for the Freedom Town schools project in association with the Town Hall and leading the 2011 Sounds Like Summer school programme in partnership with UFA and the Symphony Hall and Town Hall.

In 2008, at the end of her studies, she formed, sang lead with and wrote the material for jazz/neo-soul band Judyshouse and currently directs both the Lichfield Community Gospel Choir, founded by Black Voices in 2009, and the Alvechurch Community Choir. However, after being signed by Rumer’s manager, Kwame Kwaten, these may have to take a back seat to her now burgeoning career with the release of her debut album, Sing to the Moon.

It has, almost inevitably, prompted some wild comparisons, the most imaginative describing That’s Alright as ‘ Billie Holiday in a Thirties flapper romp underpinned by Burundi percussion, Busby Berkley meets Adam Ant’; which is spot on save for the fact she sounds nothing like Holiday. Nor would you mistake her for Nina Simone, though it’s fair to say her influence is probably in the musical make-up somewhere, though stronger ones would more likely be Roberta Flack (especially on intimate chamber piano ballad Diamonds) and Laura Nyro whose New York jazz soul and Broadway affections glimmer on such numbers as Like The Morning Dew, Green Garden (a fabulous xylophone tinkling jazzy ode to the parks of Kings Heath with marching drums and handclaps) and the skyline-dawn-view-from-a-loft feel of the its title track with warm brass.

mvula sleeve

Produced by Steve Brown who brought Karen Carpenter back from the dead with Rumer, it’s an often lush affair, making frequent use of harp (shimmering on Can’t Live With The World), celeste, pizzicato double bass and brass but, unlike many who just load up the instrumentation to make it fatter, Mvula has a keen sense of arrangement that means everything is there for a reason. Listen to Make Me Lovely, a lurching tempo song that’s one moment stabbing brass soul then slips into dreamy interludes with heavenly choirs or She which essentially does the same thing in reverse. For all its love unrequited lyric, Flying Without You is a joyful, parping horns number with a giddy New Orelans vibe and a snappy snare drum beat, but then contrast that with the intimacy of near hymnal piano ballad Father, Father, a deeply personal number about her parents’ divorce with a heartbreaking childlike vulnerability.

Although her background would lead you to expect a heavily gospel influenced sound, Mvula takes her cues far more from American jazz and, as I’ve said, Broadway which means that she doesn’t fit easily into the convenient marketing pigeonhole of retro soul and while I’m sure many would like to bundle her up with Emilie Sante and her bandwagon a more kindred musical spirit would be fellow Birmingham artist Jo Hamilton. In the wake of the current swell of publicity and exposure, I’m sure she’ll sell thousands to those who don’t want to feel they’re missing out on the new sensation, but long after the trend-magpies have flown Mvula is guaranteed an audience (more likely in America) among those who appreciate an artist whose music endures. They should reserve that York Road Walk of Fame star now.

Their first new original material in six years, Oh No It’s….The Wonder Stuff (IRL) from THE WONDER STUFF is also the first since the departure of Malc Treece and the arrival of new drummer – and old PWEI mate – Fuzz Townsend. Receiving a full release this month, it’s vintage stuff; possibly because, to judge by Clear Through The Years, Miles is in reflective mood as he sings about staring at your past to bring the present into shaper focus. It’s a great opening track with a driving drum beat, swirling guitars and fiddle (courtesy, as ever, Erica Nockalls, who has her own solo album next month), catchy chorus and a distinct aroma of George Harrison, leading into Oh No!, a Slade stomping tune (a sort of faster Look Wot You Dun) about the boring repetition of life in suburbia and from there the circling melody summery Beatlesish pop of Friendly Company.

wonder stuff sleeve

They quote their own history too: From The Midlands With Love, where Miles proudly declares his roots is set firmly in Size Of A Cow Territory, the fiddle fiery urgent intensity of Right Side Of The Turf recalls Circle Square, Be Thy Name has the same flurrying pop effervescence of No or The 13th Time but with added Erica and Arms Open Wide shares the euphoric psychedelics of Give Give Give Me More More More.

But don’t get the idea that they’re repeating themselves. This isn’t a band looking to trade on the familiarity of old riffs and melodies, rather that they have a readily identifiable sound that you’d not mistake for anyone else and the fact that, as Yer Man’s Alright and the folk and Lennon-tinted Steady As You Go demonstrate, Hunt writes the sort of melodies and hooks that sink themselves into your brain and refuse to let go.

They may not have the cachet they did 20 years ago, but this is a Top 10 album whatever the sales may say differently.

The release comes as a two disc limited edition, the bonus being a collection of all the From The Midlands With Love singles plus, before fans moan about having already bought them all individually, two previously unreleased tracks, Unlike the other covers, these (quite possibly demos) take a decidedly different tack to the originals: UB40’s One In Ten is effectively recast as a minimal moody piano ballad with a strong folk flavour that suggests how it might have sounded had the Campbells followed in their father’s footsteps while, taken at a slower tempo, The Primitives’ Crash (arguably the greatest of the 80s New Wave pop singles) gets a wholly acoustic treatment.

When you’re OCEAN COLOUR SCENE calling your album Painting (Cooking Vinyl) is asking for the obvious snide ‘by numbers’ review. Sure enough more than one critic obliged, but, maybe because the band’s stayed the course and remained true to its musical heart, more have been unusually complimentary.


It’s not unusual that the cover painting features original core members Steve, Simon and Oscar but it is interesting to read the credits which describes them as ‘contracted featured performers’ and mentions all featured session musicians as ‘non-featured members’. Even more interesting is that, while they get mentioned in the thanks, neither Dan Seeley nor Andy Bennett, who not too many years back were announced as official members, appear on the recordings at all.

Leaving label, management and contractual politics aside, and focusing on the music, it opens in reflective mood with Simon’s We Don’t Look In The Mirror, its intimations of mortality (“the face that’s looking back is looking rather cracked”) given a folksy melody , tinkling chorus, mellotron and slow march percussive loop. And birdsong.

The title track follows, a familiarly styled OCS bounce-along tune with tumbling chords and Beatles echoes, then its shades of Ronnie Lane’s Romany folk for a frisky Goodbye Old Town with Steve on mandolin before Doodle Book. Written by Cradock and Paul Weller keyboardist Andy Croft, it’s an uptempo Northern Soul number, albeit with a George Harrisonesque guitar solo and an Eastern psychedelia and dub reggae bridge.

Built on a solid repetitive drum pattern, fierce guitar and a Sympathy For The Devil piano figure, If God Made Everyone is a particular stand out with a lyric questioning Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. By complete musical contrast, Weekend has Simon in his Odessa period Bee Gees mode for a gorgeous dreamy heartbreaker that, in a fuller arrangement, might be caressed by strings.

The first of three numbers by Fowler and Cradock, with its psychedelics, backwards tapes, phasing and distortions, echoing early Traffic Professor Perplexity isn’t one of the stronger numbers but it keeps the energy and retro inventiveness flowing, then there’s another abrupt tonal shift with the brief and lyrically enigmatic George’s Tower and just Simon’s vocals over a faint keyboard.

The second joint-penned number, the waltzing I Don’t Want To Leave England tips the hat to Ray Davies with a number that still finds patriotism in spite of everything wrong with the country. Perhaps not accidentally its followed by The Winning Side, a bitterly ironic acoustic number written from the perspective of a parent who’s lose a child to a war, heartrending as Fowler sings of “all the Christmases and other days to dread.”


A trademark swelling mid tempo Fowler ballad that manages to sound lushly orchestrated even without strings, Mistaken Identity references his 2004 encounter with a man in Richmond Park who stabbed a passing cyclist just minutes later, but the line ‘one more face that looks like me’ suggests a deeper meaning.

The last of the joint compositions, The Union is the album’s only real weak link, a hazy, summery song about a new baby which, given Cradock’s son’s now eight, has either been lying around for a while or is about someone else’s kid entirely.

The anthem of the album, complete with a choir of backing vocals, with its chorus refrain ‘sweeter than the sun ray, sweeter than love’, The New Torch Song is ostensibly a celebration of last year’s Olympic Games but while the music is jubilant there’s still something dark about the line ‘hidden in your face, nothing to look into. Looking in your face, looking too deep for you’.

The album ends with Here Comes the Dawning Day featuring just Simon and an acoustic guitar , an all too short plaintive love song which perhaps serves to end on a more positive life affirming note than which it opened as he sings ‘laugh alive a while’. Easily their most consistent – and possibly overall best – release since Marchin’ Already, with most reviews, even the NME’s, grudgingly admitting that they are in fact, pretty good and that a re-evaluation may well be in order, the album’s having the last laugh in more ways than one.


Previewed last year when they were known as Maccabees, Weapons of Mass Deception (Tax Records) finally surfaces under the band’s original name as DISSIDENT PROPHET. Following on from 1996’s We’re Not Grasshoppers, 2002’s 21st Century Spin and 2005’s Modern Man, it’s now their fourth release as their previous incarnation and, as I said before, a strong collection of dark tinted rock n roll with country inflections that sounds like a cocktail of The Alabama 3, The Stones and the Velvet Underground even if Be Serious could have come from a Status Quo album. They’re a Christian indie rock outfit on a spiritual crusade for the truth, but you don’t have to share the faith to become their disciples.


Not due out for a couple of months, let me say now X.O.V.A ’s debut album, Synchronise Your Leaders, is the best British reggae album since Signing Off and while the UB40 influence and comparisons may be obvious, both in the music and the political lyrics, the multi-ethnic, multi-generational seven piece has an identity firmly its own. Upholding reggae tradition, opening cut Chillout Maximum celebrates the ‘plant that grows out the earth’, but the track itself embraces not only brass driven reggae but also psychedelia, dub and a very tasty rock guitar solo exemplifying that, unlike the Yoobees, they aren’t afraid to think outside the genre box too. Indeed, both Lullaby and Yeah Yeah Yeah completely upend expectations by sounding like classy boy band ballads, the latter the sort of song that could give Take That a #1, and underlying the versatility and impressive vocal talent of singer Wayne Lawrence.

Featuring past singles Knife Crime City and 9 Lives, I’ll review the album in more detail when it’s released, but for now I should mention upcoming single Little Lion which again departs from the reggae sound in favour of lilting acoustic Celtic pop with orchestral stings and flute. Written about Lawrence’s sister Wendy, who suffers from Cronhs (an inflammatory bowel disease), it’s a terrific and swayingly melodic life-affirming inspirational anthem about support, courage and the refusal to accept the hand fate deals and its release is being backed by Crohn's and Colitis UK, the charity dedicated to helping those diagnosed with IDB. Given the Radio 2 support is deserves, it has the potential to be a massive success and is already one of my Top 10 songs of the year.

roots-and-branches.com 2014