This week we look at the most recent releases from London neo-soul artist Cleo Sol (a member of Sault), L.A. R&B sisters Chloe x Halle, and Norwegian neo-progressive band Wobbler.
Rose in the Dark
As well as two studio albums this year and two more in 2019, a brace of other significant records have come from the Sault camp. Michael Kiwanuka and Little Simz both had strong releases last year produced by Sault’s Inflo, and now Sault’s Cleo Sol steps into the spotlight with her solo debut. Born in London, Cleopatra Nikolic came from mixed heritage – her Jamaican dad plays bass and piano, while her Serbian/Spanish mother sang and played guitar and flute. Sol was inspired to take up music by Stevie Wonder’s ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing’, and released some early singles but Rose in the Dark is her first full-length album at the age of 30. She tells the story of her absence in the title track, where she sings
I prayed so hard, I thought I’d lose my mindRose in the Dark, Cleo Soul
I’m a little stronger, baby
Took a little longer, maybe
Tell my younger self to enjoy the ride
It’s more personal, but Sol’s lyrical perspective on Rose in the Dark isn’t markedly different than on Sault’s work – it’s the sonic palette that’s distinct from Sault. While Sault’s arrangements are distinctively minimalistic, Sol’s Rose in the Dark is more conventional, a pretty neo-soul record.
None of these songs are big or dramatic, but they’re still musically rich. There’s a terrific jazzy bassline on ‘Rewind’, while Sol is accompanied only by acoustic guitar on ‘Butterfly’. Strings colour ‘Why Don’t You’, while the record closes with standout track ‘Her Light’, with huge dollops of 1970s soul like the flute and the woozy synth.
Rose in the Dark isn’t attention grabbing, but it’s full of lovely tunes and smooth vocals.
Chloe x Halle
Chloe and Halle Bailey were born in Georgia, but moved to L.A. in their tweens. A Youtube cover of Beyonce’s earned her attention, and they were signed to a $1 million record deal. For a young R&B duo, they’re unusually self-contained – they provide a lot of the instrumentation, and Chloe Bailey is the primary producer on most of these songs.
Even when the material on this sophomore record is generic, the singing sounds great. The siblings harmonise beautifully – there’s something magical about two voices, similar yet distinct, singing together. The record’s a little flat when they’re trying to make a hit single, even though ‘Do It’ is grand.
The beat’s modern, but ‘Wonder What She Thinks Of Me’ is reminiscent of a torch song, while ‘Don’t Make It Harder On Me’ is a lovely R&B piece buried deep in the second half of the record. The almost acapella ‘Overwhelmed’ shows off the sisters’ vocal chops. I learned about Ungodly Hour from Time’s best of 2020 list – probably my favourite I’ve seen this year: https://time.com/5915313/best-albums-2020/
Halle Bailey is set to play Ariel in a live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, and the two sisters are set to become megastars.
Dwellers of the Deep
As much as I enjoy music from the heyday of progressive rock in the early 1970s, I don’t often dip my toes into the neo-progressive scene. While I don’t keep up, it seems that Norway’s Wobbler are one of the most beloved bands in the current neo-prog scene. Fascinatingly, they eschew modern technology, not using any instruments from beyond 1975. Instead of modern synths, they rely on piano, minimoog, and Mellotrons.
Progressive rock always requires a very strong vocalist, and Andreas Wettergreen Strømman Prestmo is a capable singer, with a high pitched voice than recalls Yes’ Jon Anderson and some huskiness a la Peter Gabriel. Even a vocalist of Prestmo’s calibre can’t pull off dopey lines like “Listen to the voices of the Naiad girls/Dancing by the pool, where the mighty river swirls.”
Lyrics are almost never the focus in progressive rock – the main appeal is from the rapidfire riffs and the keyboard arsenal of Lars Fredrik Frøislie, which recalls Rick Wakeman in his 1970s pomp. The two longer tracks outshine the two shorter ones – the impressive riffing of the fast-paced ‘By The Banks’ and the more atmospheric ‘Merry Macabre’ are the highlights.
Dwellers of the Deep is dangerously close to a 1970s Yes pastiche, but there’s enough quality to make it worthwhile regardless.