If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: Those British singers are the only ones making decent soul music these days. I can refute that statement by identifying the deep bench of indie soul singers from the states. I’ll just say that Gregory Porter, Sy Smith, et. al., beg to differ and leave it at that. However, it’s clear that something is brewing across the pond, and that something explains why a lot of American singers have to venture across the pond to get any love.
It’s also true that the output from European soul singers – and especially those with connections to the United Kingdom – is quite impressive. Adele immediately comes to mind, but there’s Corinne Bailey Rae, James Hunter, Incognito, Mama’s Gun, Julie Dexter and veterans such as Sade. There’s clearly a British formula for making soul music and Ola Onabule – the velvety voiced Brit of Nigerian descent - perfects it on Seven Shades Darker, his follow-up to 2007’s excellent The Devoured Man.
How good is this record? If you can make it past “Every Prey,” the album’s opening track without putting the stereo, computer or MP.3 player on repeat you’re better than I, and I’m guaranteeing that you won’t make it past “Let Love Alone,” which is track three. Both possess a unique set of virtues: “Every Prey” is an up-tempo funk/pop hybrid that is distinguished by Onabule’s razor sharp lyricism and some horn play that might remind listeners of Chicago. “Let Love Alone,” is a classic R&B ballad that finds Onabule encouraging his woman not to be consumed by insecurity. “She may turn phrases I’ve heard you say/And yet not make me feel what they mean,” Onabule sings. “Let Love Alone” features an instrumental arrangement that fuses jazz ad R&B and serves as the perfect platform for Onabule’s vocal dexterity.
Onabule’s willingness to explore social themes also elevates Seven Shades Darker. The percussive “Great Expectations” tells the story of a young man who summons the courage to flee his war-torn village in hopes of finding something better, while the pensive “A Name” describes how something as simple as a name can provide enough evidence to lead to a man being persecuted. “So what’s in a name/that begs you heed its call/and binds you in its thrall/Tells of where you hail/What flag of faith you sail.” The funky “The Desperate One” addresses the hopelessness that drives many economically disadvantaged youth to make bad decisions.
It’s a tribute to the beauty of Onabule’s vocal instrument, his skill as a songwriter and his talented musicians that none of these songs comes off as preachy or overbearing. Onabule ranges from affairs of the heart to affairs of state, but each song is connected by their quality proving that the time that elapsed between The Devoured Man and Seven Shades Darker was time well spent. Highly Recommended.
By Howard Dukes