Alex Isley - Luxury (2016)

Alex Isley
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The heiress to a soul music dynasty going back six decades, Alex Isley has been doing proud the legacy of father, Ernie Isley, and her uncles in the Isley Brothers. With a critically acclaimed series of chillout, electrosoul EPs over the last four years, Isley has showcased a sumptuous instrument with a clean tone, crystalline timbre, and penchant for elegant harmonics. With chic lounge soundscapes and sophisticated atmospherics peopling the self-released Luxury, Isley delivers a debut full-length project that doesn’t detract from her burgeoning reputation as the L.A. underground’s sultry chanteuse, but doesn’t add anything new to it either.

The heiress to a soul music dynasty going back six decades, Alex Isley has been doing proud the legacy of father, Ernie Isley, and her uncles in the Isley Brothers. With a critically acclaimed series of chillout, electrosoul EPs over the last four years, Isley has showcased a sumptuous instrument with a clean tone, crystalline timbre, and penchant for elegant harmonics. With chic lounge soundscapes and sophisticated atmospherics peopling the self-released Luxury, Isley delivers a debut full-length project that doesn’t detract from her burgeoning reputation as the L.A. underground’s sultry chanteuse, but doesn’t add anything new to it either.

The work of Luxury feels like an extension of the musical explorations begun on Isley’s previous EPs with very little departure from her winning formula. As with more percussive songs like “Still Care” from 2013’s DreamsInAnalog, Isley is most elevated when set against a strong hip hop bassline throbbing against a midnight backdrop of dark space. She does so again here with the sublime “It’s You” and “Grown” to basslines that nicely contrast with the gossamer quality of Isley’s sinewy instrument (which has the nerve to smoothly scat on “It’s You”). In ways that are more R&B than hip hop soul, on “La Brea” Isley does so again with a seductive urban adult contemporary cut that is part whisper cajole and part lonely 3am drive along La Brea. Consistently, it appears that the more complex and intricate her vocal play is against heavier, contrasting percussive elements, the stronger the material.

Where the material feels thin and fails to make its distinction is on the sparer productions that rely on more ‘80s New Wave synth and electronic music elements to lay a foundation as light and airy as Isley’s upper register. Pleasant, but unmemorable songs like “Inevitable” and “Loss For Words” suffer from this approach when played one after the other (interestingly enough, the minimalist songs do work better as standalone tracks, but lose their identity in a collection of similar sounds). Sometimes the arrangement and lyrical punch pull a song through from the passable to something special, as with the delicate pop of “String of Pearls.”

As with KING, with whom Isley has previously collaborated, the vocals have a through line to Amel Larrieux as a powerful influence. Both classically and jazz trained, Isley’s elastic voice is every bit as awe-inspiring as the former frontwoman from Groove Theory. As astral high as it can reach, Isley’s lower register may even be a bit heavier and fuller at times than Larrieux’s. Indeed, Isley’s vocal is the star of every song, more than any lyric, hook, or production technique. Like Marvin Gaye and Lewis Taylor, Isley sings with herself using different tones and colors in harmonies, doubling, and counterpoint that isn’t entirely unlike an accapella team’s vocal approach in its musical portraiture work (See: “Go for Gold”). There is a wistful, yearning quality to Isley’s tone that suggests pain and loneliness, but it isn’t a depressing or blues sound; it’s really an unquantifiable something all its own that feels fresh and modern.

While Alex Isley is a part of the famed Isley Brothers dynasty, her material and style has very little relationship to much of their catalog, save the more melancholic ballads of the early ‘70s Isley canon. Carving a path forward all her own with a progressive soul sound heavy with ballads and mid-tempo grooves, Alex capably keeps us invested in the Isley name for yet another generation.  Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 
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