Marques Toliver - Land of CanAan (2013)

Marques Toliver
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Marques Toliver is a young brother who knows how to work a violin. Theoretically, this alone should not be that novel, but while one can name a handful of female violinists working in jazz and soul, you’d be hard pressed to name one black male violinist working in these genres outside of session or orchestral work. If that weren’t enough, the musical unicorn that moonlights as a UK model and magazine editor also sings and writes well too. The nerve of some people! While the Renaissance man is not new to the hipster set, having developed a YouTube and blogger following for his emotive, acoustic performances of blended classical and soul music, Land of CanAan is technically Marques Toliver’s full-length debut album. It also happens to be something of a blowout for this truly rare talent and easily one of this year’s top releases.

Marques Toliver is a young brother who knows how to work a violin. Theoretically, this alone should not be that novel, but while one can name a handful of female violinists working in jazz and soul, you’d be hard pressed to name one black male violinist working in these genres outside of session or orchestral work. If that weren’t enough, the musical unicorn that moonlights as a UK model and magazine editor also sings and writes well too. The nerve of some people! While the Renaissance man is not new to the hipster set, having developed a YouTube and blogger following for his emotive, acoustic performances of blended classical and soul music, Land of CanAan is technically Marques Toliver’s full-length debut album. It also happens to be something of a blowout for this truly rare talent and easily one of this year’s top releases.

Already named a favorite of Adele’s and having earned his hipster cred among the tastemakers, multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter Toliver has been making his talent known overseas for a few years now. The rising UK star released a few singles, including the “Magic Look,” and a 2011 EP entitled Butterflies Are Not Free. Where his four-song EP alternated between more rootsy Americana and futuristic electronica in its settings, Land of CanAan is unabashedly soulful in melody and line against a backdrop of purely neo-classical intricacies. On his debut, Toliver also hadn’t quite mastered the art of the hook yet, whereas his sophomore effort makes the embraceable chorus look criminally easy. The growth is exciting to witness, and the flow between experimentations and by-the-rules soul pop is reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s Where I’m Coming From in serving as a laboratory for ideas and direction still being fully realized, but far advanced of what most of his peers were doing at the time. In that instance, Wonder launched a decade run of albums thereafter that comprise his magnum opuses and the blueprint that has been copied but never successfully matched since. Perhaps if Toliver keeps pushing through the different cultural and musical milieus he’s exploring, he can prove the exception.

In the discipline and boldness of the stunningly cohesive project tying together so many ideas, Toliver is definitely reaching for something fresh while still being steeped in the R&B and classical traditions he’s studied. In this way, his Land of CanAan is reminiscent of another landmark album, Donnie’s The Colored Section. Vocally, the throaty Toliver sings harder than Wonder and Donnie, there’s more edge than resonance, more smoke than smooth to his tenor. But, he matches them in urgency and gut-honesty, while never overstepping the limitations of his vocal range.

Lyrically, like Wonder and Donnie, Toliver can go as poetic as he can simple and unpretentious, sometimes trafficking in a cliché or two in the process. Thematically, his partiality for relationship nuances and emotional revelations is clear. Some of the cuts have spiritual allusions like the moody “CanAan,” but even that can sometimes be a bit of a canard to talk about secular love. More present is the usual relationship fare, like the pleas of “Stay.” As with “CanAan,” Toliver sacrifices infectiousness for driving violins and Gothic atmospherics for the ambitious “Try Your Best,” deftly displaying virtuosity at every level on both cuts.

When not going dark, Toliver often flashes his flair for perfect soul pop as on the Motown sweep of “If Only” and “Something’s Wrong,” songs whose melodic and compositional strengths cannot be over-exalted. His more forced retro moments vary from the calculated (“Control”) to the elegantly restrained (“Find Your Way Back”); they work but are tightly wound and controlled when compared to the energizing power of “If Only” and “Something’s Wrong.” The bossa nova meets inspirational soul of the “Weather Man,” reads more sincere than the lovey dovey retro material, with Toliver gingerly handling the notes with hushed tones, giving the song a Bacharach-flavored bouquet some room to blossom with fuller notes, peppy horns, and doo wop harmonies. While one can quibble on the subjective, the overarching effect is a run of gravy rich material that demands repeated listing to unpack and fully appreciate all that is happening at once.  

Anchoring these Eg White (Adele, Duffy, James Morrison) co-productions are orchestral landscapes laden with strings and complex compositional elements that could have clashed with Toliver’s straight-ahead soul pop melodies, but always fit like ball in glove. There’s even a tender, tinkling instrumental that feels as fragile as baby’s breath and as naked as a sunrise. In ensuring the classical elements never overtake the material or become clunky, White makes a worthy companion to Toliver’s vision.

The marriage of soul pop and classical music is not necessarily new; it’s often the hallmark of symphonic live albums by R&B and soul pop stars ranging from Bernhoft and Alain Clark to Sting and Chaka Khan. It’s also the underpinning of such classic albums as The Dells’ Love is Blue and Minnie Ripperton’s Come to My Garden, both collaborations with producer/arranger Charles Stepney. However, with the exception of Laura Mvula’s Sing to the Moon, few studio R&B and soul pop albums in recent years have worked so hard at this amalgamation or pulled it off with such sweet finesse as this White and Toliver layered eau de toilette for the soul. Highly Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 

 

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