Jamie Lidell’s work proves that dance beats require brains, or at least his brain requires a dance beat. Either way, Lidell knows how to lay ‘em down to get the crowd moving, which is what his latest self-titled offering does the best. The return to funk recalls Lidell’s 2005 breakout album, Multiply, which garnered acclaim and curiosity over how an English-born, Nashville-based songwriter could pull off a Prince/Rick James sound without sounding like Donald Hall’s nephew. Lidell’s geographic split is a fairly adequate indication of his musical tastes, which favors both Eurotrash dance music and southern blues. As club-ready as Lidell gets, his songs leave ample room for improvisation and swagger, which, as it turns out, is exactly how Prince’s and Rick James’ music functions.
Lidell always been too schooled and too white to sound half as suave as Prince, but that doesn’t mitigate the fact Lidell could probably sing “Starfish and Coffee” in Pig Latin on request. The funky flushes are impossible to mistake on “You Naked.” The song’s abstract and breathy repetition (“you naked, you naked”), the scent of trouble, the purring, is all purple homage. What makes the song great is when the upbeat chorus kicks in (“yamakinmecrazaaay”) and brassy keys stomp all over the downward scale, as they do big time on “What A Shame”. It all shows that when Lidell borrows, he borrows from the best.
In his brief career, Lidell has already worked with mono-named luminaries like Beck and Feist. He went minimal on his first self-portrait, 2008’s Jim, and began to add back the layers, one piano stroke at a time, with 2010’s Compass. The shift forward (and backward) to his funky signature sound is a welcome one, even though the initial novelty has worn as we’ve become familiar with his work. Those who are down to accompany Lidell while he picks over more metaphorical berets at a secondhand store won’t be disappointed, though. Lidell intelligently tinkers with immaculate 80s R&B tunes. Think an Africa Bambaataa rendition of “Miss You Much”. He brings theoretical fun to life with confident chords, zany 80s synthesizer scales (pixelated video to follow?), and seasons the songs to perfection.
“Do Yourself A Faver” pairs Bee Gee brother silkiness with a “Beat It”-inspired jolt. Even better is “Blaming Something”, which features the upturn vocal of Tina Turner’s “I Can’t Stand The Rain”, a song with an impressive list of 21st Century admirers including Missy Elliott and Beyoncé. Lidell may not be able to move like half of those performers, but he certainly knows how to get a room shaking like them on “Big Love”. A vintage break-beat kicks off as if Paula Abdul was expected to chassé through the door and morphs into a festival of joyous percussion and weaving scat lines. “I’m Selfish” also gets off to a sassy start, this time with a Herbie Hancock approach. The madcap “Rockit”-esque melody dives into a groovy jock jam. Lidell’s control is so strong it’s as if he guides and convinces the music to foray with him into these daring genre choices.
Similar to fellow neo-soul rockers like The Heavy and The Dap-Kings, however, sustaining new listeners is harder to accomplish with a time-weathered sound. In that sense, “What A Shame” may not be the best track on the album, but its fusion of grime with slow motion funk, makes it the most memorable and contemporary. Beats the size of trashcans knock around Lidell, who punctuates his coos with false starts and question marks. He calls himself the “king of hesitation”, and perhaps the biggest surprise of the album is that the crown seems to fit.
Essential Tracks: “You Naked”, “What A Shame”, and “Big Love”