Douye - Journey (2008)

Douye
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The Nigerian born, LA based singer/songwriter, Douye, is a definite talent. What isn't as definite is whether her smoldering debut can maintain a listener's attention for all 11 tracks of this thematically diverse, but sonically similar Journey. A package of hickory smoked vocals backed by smooth jazz arrangements is so commonplace in the jazz and indie soul market as to now constitute its own sub-genre. The problem is that the fusion of soul and jazz only works well when one of the dominant genres is showing enough of its teeth to keep the whole thing from devolving into upscale Muzak. The mellow moods inspired by these textured melodies are welcome after a hard day to be sure, but their smooth-by-numbers approach to jazz and vocal resonance as emotionalism is a bit insulting to both hard core jazz and soul fans.

The Nigerian born, LA based singer/songwriter, Douye, is a definite talent. What isn't as definite is whether her smoldering debut can maintain a listener's attention for all 11 tracks of this thematically diverse, but sonically similar Journey. A package of hickory smoked vocals backed by smooth jazz arrangements is so commonplace in the jazz and indie soul market as to now constitute its own sub-genre. The problem is that the fusion of soul and jazz only works well when one of the dominant genres is showing enough of its teeth to keep the whole thing from devolving into upscale Muzak. The mellow moods inspired by these textured melodies are welcome after a hard day to be sure, but their smooth-by-numbers approach to jazz and vocal resonance as emotionalism is a bit insulting to both hard core jazz and soul fans. Douye tries to keep it interesting by drawing comparisons to fellow Nigerian, Sade, in her phrasing and through story telling akin to the likes of Phoebe Snow, but the routine smooth jazz arrangements make it more background music than welcome distraction.

It's not entirely Douye's fault. The bar for smooth jazz has been set low for some time by more mature fans who only ask that you not disturb their happy hour chatter or after work lounging with too much impassioned noise. So, it's no surprise that a young artist like Douye could believe that sliding into notes and crooning against midnight backdrops will be enough to pass muster. If that's her thinking, she's not unjustified in it as there are certainly enough artists who are capitalizing on the musical legacy of Sade and Maxi Priest. Singers like Melody Gardot and Diana Krall on the jazz side and Goapele and Rhian Benson on the soul end of this spectrum demonstrate a belief that smokiness and a relaxed approach to melody create enough atmosphere to constitute compelling music. Given the commercial success of all of these artists, it has been a gamble that has worked, so far. However, the playing field is becoming crowded with new artists coming out every month who are taking this "I never break a sweat when I sing" route to jazzy soul, making it more and more difficult to standout. With her chilled out sultriness, had Douye come out several years earlier she'd have been an acclaimed forerunner. Instead, her music feels like it's following the pack.

The casual soul/jazz singer movement is an odd one as it owes more to supper club crooners like Mel Torme and Frank Sinatra than to the Billie Hollidays, Sarah Vaughns and Ella Fitzgeralds often peopling these newbies' publicized pre-requisite list of influences. Has anyone ever seen Ella Fitzgerald not wiping her brow through a song? Even Betty Carter's behind the tempo styling required a hair-raising precision that made her overt ease that much more impressive. These elders also did something today's casual soul/jazz singer seems programmed to avoid: allowing a song to drive you to vamp, improvise or otherwise demonstrate how overwhelmed you are by the message of your own music. Uh, uh; these artists have taken deodorant commercials to whole new heights.

Part of the reason next generation soul jazz hybrids like Sade and Maxi Priest worked is because there was usually an earnestness and passion to their vocals that substituted for the required belts, scats and rifts of the genre. You believed that Maxi did just want to be "Close To You" or that for Sade this was "No Ordinary Love" because they clearly believed it. It also helped that these artists had dramatic production or at least catchy arrangements that created a tension or dynamic that the artist's voice sometimes lacked.

There is very little of that consciousness by Douye's producers regarding the glaring need for compensatory elements to fend off listener boredom through the length of this project. Instead, Douye's Journey depends heavily on jazzy flourishes, familiar phrasing and fond reminiscence of late 80s/early 90s fusion productions to walk listeners through this quiet moonlight drive. Her songwriting mentorship by Olivia Newton John scribe Terry Shaddick ensure that the lyrical work here is solid, if sentimental to a fault on tunes like "The Voice." Another detour from the hipster grooves comes on "Cold Wind Blows," which has the feel of a TV commercial with women running through fields of daisies. Douye's best attribute is her Sade-inspired phrasing, which causes approving nods during "Fly Away" and "In Love With You," but the schtick becomes old hat halfway through the project. Though you may appreciate a latter track like "Walk Away," close listeners will find themselves waiting for Douye to pull another vocal influence rabbit out of her hat other than Sade, but she has no other tricks on which to rely. If you wanted to know how Sade might sound if she ever left writer/producers Stuart Matthewman and Andrew Hale, Douye gives us a pretty good idea. Let me say Journey has convinced me that Ms. Adu will kill to ensure that Sade and Sweetback never part.

To be fair to Douye, there is never an unpleasant moment on these songs; its cognac goes down smooth and crisp enough. There also isn't a single tune you will remember an hour after the Journey is completed. You'll look up an hour later with sleep in the corners of your eyes and wonder however did you get to your destination so fast? Wasn't there music playing? Mildly Recommended.

-L. Michael Gipson   

 
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