Posts Tagged ‘Free’

Morning breaks somewhere in the world, always, with the first cracks of light slicing across the horizon like a knife through the edge of night. Mourning – of lost love and loved ones, dashed dreams, and so much more – breaks, too. The new day brings with it new hope, but it can’t and won’t be rushed. It comes when it comes. 

Singer, songwriter and pianist Natalie Duncan’s Free skirts the divide, delving into both sides with artful precision. The album opens with “Kansas,” which is akin to a sonic wave that sweeps from the speakers with strings and wordless vocals before morphing into something more. “How many people try to put out your light/you’ll never know, so you better glow/baby, come shining/baby, come shining…”

Neo-soul, R&B and jazzy elements come together in an uncluttered production that enables chords to breathe – and for Aaron Janick’s trumpet to float in from the distance like a dream on certain songs and interludes, such as on “Pools” (which I featured yesterday) or “Glass,” which samples Nina Simone. 

With Richard Spaven on drums and Alan Mian on bass, a solid rhythm anchors many of the R&B-flavored tracks. “Atrium,” an early favorite, is a good example. “Going backwards/all the same words/I’ve been through this/but it still hurts/I’m just waiting for some stillness…”

“Nova” is another.

If you listened to one or both, you’ll notice an old-school vibe that conjures, but doesn’t copy, Alicia Keys. “Sirens,” “Karma” and “Autumn,” on the other hand, are jazz-imbued tunes that would be at home on a Nina Simone LP, while “Strange” (“I know I am insufferable sometimes…) and “Brave” could well be unearthed Roberta Flack treasures. 

Shorthand comparisons aside, what comes through the most is Natalie Duncan. “Diamond,” the closing track, deftly blends old-school rap with her old-school soul in a way that’s both sweet and bittersweet. “Happiness is just a concept/happiness is something you can choose to remember or forget/happiness is never, ever having to regret…” (To quote Diane, “I could listen to her rap all day.”)

Free closes just as it begins – with strings and wordless vocals – as if to demonstrate that, just as night slides into day, day glides into night; it’s the cycle of life. With these 12 songs as part of one’s personal soundtrack, however, the downtimes will hurt a little less and the good times will rate with the best. It’s a great album.

I’m not sure when I first heard Natalie Duncan, though I know it came about from a review of her 2012 debut album, Devil in Me, that appeared in either Mojo or Uncut that July – which means it was likely sometime in August. For good and ill, those British magazines were the primary vessels of my music discovery at the time, but they always arrived in U.S. bookstores a month late due to the vagaries of the shipping process. Those were the days, I should explain, when Diane and I routinely took up residence in the cafe section of our local Barnes & Noble bookstore for most of a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, she reading a book in full over the course of a few weeks and I, when not doing the same, paging through magazines while downing a succession of high-octane coffee drinks.

At any rate, Devil in Me became an instant favorite. At their best, the songs conjure the ghosts of popular music past while remaining firmly rooted in the present; her evocative lyrics and intricate melodies paint scenes that resonate deep within the soul. At worst, some songs – while strong – sound overproduced to my ears; and the album, which clocks in at over an hour, is just too long. (That’s a common complaint I have with most CD-age albums, actually. More is not always better.)

That said, YouTube holds more proof of her prodigious talent, including renditions of some Devil in Me songs that gain strength by stripping off their veneers. “Uncomfortable Silence” is a good example; although it’s powerful on album, this rendition – just Natalie at the piano – is spellbinding.

Speaking of spellbinding, here she is performing three songs in early ’12 at the Real World Studios – Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel,” “Sky Is Falling” and the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”; the latter sends shivers up my spine every time I play it.

Unfortunately, despite much positive press, popular success didn’t follow and she eventually parted ways with her record label, Verve. In 2015, however, she released the electronica-tinged Black & White EP, which is well worth many listens. The title track is a hypnotic trance set to song, just about…

…and that same year she released the minimalistic single “Lies,” another sterling track. This video captures her performing it at London’s Wet Fish Cafe:

Flash forward five years and Natalie has a new album in the offing, Free, which is slated for release at the end of July on DJ Goldie’s new label, Fallen Tree 1Hundred. Of the lead single, “Sirens,” she says in the release on Bandcamp, “I initially wrote the piano and I whistled the vocals because I wasn’t able to talk at the time. It was a very frustrating writing process, but it was so euphoric the first time I was able to sing the chorus line ‘Can you make me fly’ — it felt like my voice was finally free and flying again.”

 

In a better world, Natalie Duncan would already be at the top of the charts. When I first heard Devil in Me in 2012, my assumption was that her soulful sound would soon top the charts in both the U.S. and U.K. Although that’s yet to happen, I still believe it. Her talent is too large for it not to be syncopating through the sonic landscape that is popular music.

Anyway, I’ll close with this cool cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed.” Although she’s considered a “neo-soul” artist, as the performance demonstrates, hers is an old soul. (When she shared it on her Facebook page a few months back, she wrote, “I can’t get over how Stevie Wonder never stops inspiring me. I heard a quote from Herbie Hancock yesterday – ‘Stevie Wonder is an example of the best a human can be’. Big tings.”)