· Finley Quaye — Vanguard (Epic).
Finley Quaye's latest starts out with a sound reminiscent of War's "Spill the Wine" in all its tangential/train-of-thought/spliffed-out riffs over deceptively simple-sounding, thumping Dub rhythms. They eventually cascade — over a churning organ — into a tumble of Jungle beats, returning again to its original lilting Reggae bounce. A steady layer of flutes moves the whole mess along. In this way, Quaye remains faithful to the shocking originality of his debut, Maverick a Strike.
It is shocking and original, still, then, that "Spiritualized" was the first single from Vanguard. It sounds too intentional, like Quaye wanted us scratching our heads. The supposed uncle of Drum 'n Bass impresario Tricky (Tricky's debut Maxinquaye is a jumble of his tragically dead mother's name and an ode to her; Quaye is the family name ... get it?). Quaye is nothing if not a fabulist, a liar, if you will. So "Spiritualized" is not so much a departure from the style he introduced to us and we became accustomed to as it is a musical lie.
Because he follows it with the splendor of "The Emperor," a lush tune on which he actually sings. Over a Stretch Armstrong bassline and minimal percussion Quaye sings poetically of the evils of mankind: "All I know is that they are lovers of evil things/Worshippers of idols/What they know they have corrupted/What they do know they've devoured.".Quaye has been portrayed in the press as a hard-living, spliff-smoking, lover-man slacker. But he's got skills and doesn't rely on that rag-tag reputation to carry him through.
He's not a player, you see, he just crushes a lot. The album would make Bob Marley proud. They are songs of reality, of children growing into a mismanaged world and grown-ups questing for truth and self-realizations with plenty of lyrical references to Jah, Babylon and world order. And it's all wrapped in a package of stuttering drums, glistening horns, champagne bubbly organs and splattering percussion. The very best examples of this are "Burning," "Feeling Blue" and "Calendar." "Chad Valley," on the other hand, does cement his reputation as a weed-head who writes smoked-out couplets while the tape machine rolls.
Yet, Quaye's music is sparse. And that is the beauty of it; its haunting quality. It's very much like a resort — beautiful at a distance but flawed up close. Though it's still been a pleasure to have visited there.
CityBeat Grade: B
· Omar - Best By Far (Oyster Music).
Omar is one of those rare artists, too talented for his own good. And in that regard he joins the ranks of Prince, Stevie Wonder and even Sly Stone.
But time ain't on his side. He's not old enough to be burned out or to be where he's said everything he could possibly say. Therefore the very title of this, his latest, is a lie. Not only is it a lie but it is misleading. Omar took the UK by storm in 1990 when he released the now-classic "There's Nothing Like This," a slow and perfectly drippy ode to laying back in the cut. Next came For Pleasure, a disc recorded in America and drenched in old-school American R&B, either in an attempt to prick up the ears of America's black radio or to get close to the source.
It was a good record and a commercial flop. In the ensuing years, Omar has realized what many talented black artists from "over there" know — that their European record labels don't know how to produce or market them. Hence, the appearance and disappearance of This Is Not A Love Song, a release only his mama owns.
With Best By Far, Omar has landed on Oyster Music, where he's been left to his own devices. And that's not a good thing. Don't get twisted. He is talented. His craggy, mellifluous tenor is a mind blowing blessing. And when he layers it on top of itself in perfect-pitch harmony — his trademark — it is a wondrous sound and the aural equivalent of baklava: sweet with more layers than an onion.
What are lacking most here are lyrics. There are only so many songs a man can sing — no matter how many "owwws" and "yeahs" he adds — about his lady and getting with her. The music's even in effect. It's appropriately thick, funky and Bossa Nova-bouncy with Omar applying his studied percussion and Stevie-esque clavinets throughout.
However, "Something Real" is the best example of the muddle. It sounds like an offering from a lesser act (Mint Condition comes to mind). But "Essensual," with its lounge lizard popcorn organ, fluttery trumpet and schmarmy lyrics, and the timeless "Be Thankful" (a duet with Erykah Badu), rebound the disc back to its intended glory. The title track furthers this meandering toward the mark. It is a dense instrumental with the lone refrain, "This is best by far." In true Prince/Stevie style, Omar plays every instrument. It is stunning. "To the Top" is lyrically corny but Ziplock-tight, while "Goodness" is an interlude better left to rehearsal. "Prologue" is a lovely garden of strings and a precursor to "Tell Me," the obvious successor in tone and feel to "There's Nothing Like This."
The remainder of the record continues in musical Ping-Pong fashion with great tunes sandwiching mediocre ones, resulting in unacceptable unevenness from a man who can do better. I like this disc more than it appears but that's what happens when an artist gets you all wet.
You expect the eargasm and have to turn over unfulfilled.
CityBeat Grade: C