Imagination - Retropia (featuring Leee John) (2017)

Imagination
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Imagination (feat. Leee John) - Retropia

Throughout most of the world outside of America, soul-grown British trio Imagination broke musical and visual barriers consistently from 1981 to 1989. Vocalists Leee John and Ashley Ingram, along with drummer Errol Kennedy, appealed to pop and R&B listeners of multiple generations with seeping gems like “Body Talk,” “So Good, So Right,” “Changes,” “Music and Lights,” and “Just an Illusion” (the latter, the group’s biggest stateside score). Several line-up changes took place in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, after which point John took to helming a number of highly regarded UK house records and recording an impressive jazz set, Feel My Soul. More recently, he teamed with fellow Brit soulsters Junior, Don-E, Omar, and Noel McCoy as The British Collective for last year’s marvelous The Renaissance Begins…

Imagination (feat. Leee John) - Retropia

Throughout most of the world outside of America, soul-grown British trio Imagination broke musical and visual barriers consistently from 1981 to 1989. Vocalists Leee John and Ashley Ingram, along with drummer Errol Kennedy, appealed to pop and R&B listeners of multiple generations with seeping gems like “Body Talk,” “So Good, So Right,” “Changes,” “Music and Lights,” and “Just an Illusion” (the latter, the group’s biggest stateside score). Several line-up changes took place in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, after which point John took to helming a number of highly regarded UK house records and recording an impressive jazz set, Feel My Soul. More recently, he teamed with fellow Brit soulsters Junior, Don-E, Omar, and Noel McCoy as The British Collective for last year’s marvelous The Renaissance Begins…

The authentic funkiness of the Collective’s album served as a nice set-up for John’s own return to R&B, which is presented in many fruitful colors on Retropia. Although billed as Imagination featuring Leee John, this is for all intents and purposes a solo album with contributions from a number of notable UK players accenting his signature vocal delivery and seasoned songwriting. There are strains of jazz, disco, gospel, reggae, and pop penetrating the soul foundation of the collection, with John’s vigorous yet at-ease self-harmonizing creating an important distinguishing element of his modern style. The tropical flute twists of Dave Mansell, the lusciously swaying guitar work of Incognito’s Jean-Paul Maunick, and Rob Malarkey’s quietly compelling bass mastery are several key instrumental components augmenting John’s commanding post.

Each leg of the Retropia journey is not a quick-fix stop, but rather a visitor-friendly destination with memorable subtleties and gradually building dynamics. The assuaging, jazzy synth-funk of “Secrets” manifests with an idyllic keyboard arrangement, deep bass lines, thickly layered vox, and coyly seductive lyrical passages: “Pull up at a four-star hotel, get out and pay the cab bill/Everything is so discreet…Walk to the elevator, press the sixth floor/Get to room 607, knockin’ on your door…” Keeping the tempo steady while funkin’ things up a bit, the wickedly potent “Fantasia” bumps along with insidious percussion, alluring sax fills, and kickin’ guitar licks alongside John’s open-door invitation to “come into the dawn, into the light/The whispering hearts, the mystery delights.”

Quieting the atmosphere, the beauteous “Solitude” coasts inside a bossa nova-inspired acoustic groove outfitted with relaxed melodic arrangements complementing John’s easygoing falsetto strides and bass-toned dialogue. Midway through Retropia, his falsetto shines further on a glowing revisiting of Eddie Kendricks’ “Tell Her Love Has Felt the Need,” which John also covered with The British Collective. The production this time around is a bit brighter, aptly bringing out the smoothness and charm of his phrasing. Time traveling back not quite as far, the feel-good, yet cautionary “Make Your Mind Up” is a spirited stepper written by John with multi-instrumentalist Toby Baker during the mid-1980s. “Here I am on my knees, waiting here desperately…Must I show you your future, or will you tell me mine,” he pleads firmly with vivid aplomb.

Rounding out Retropia, the melancholy “The Best I Could” supplies an attractive groove to zoom in on enchanting melodies of heartbreak and longing, while a compellingly understated take on Stevie Wonder’s “Visions” (featuring Level 45 singer Mike Lindup) provides calming closure with pronounced pauses and supple guitar strummings faithful to the original. The physical CD edition of the album features four hidden bonus tracks, which include a colorful update of “Just an Illusion”; a slinky slice of guitar-spiked synth-boogie (“Krash”); and a remake of Junior Murvin’s 1977 reggae anthem, “Police and Thieves”—markedly timely in its exploration of gangs and brutality by armed officers. Recommended.

by Justin Kantor

 
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