If you hadn’t noticed already, a repeat of the British Invasion is in full swing. Along with 2014’s golden child, Sam Smith, a list of trendsetters (Adele, Florence + the Machine, Emeli Sandé, Ellie Goulding, Jessie Ware, James Blake, etc.) and tributaries to the still-burgeoning EDM movement are evidence of this new, latest wave of UK exportation. Recently added to the gargantuan list of musicians hitting American shores is Sam Dickinson, a North England indie soul guy with a debut album now on his hands.
On The Stories That Occurred, Dickinson seems to be highly influenced by the sounds of Northern soul and Motown records. As if he’s trapped in a time warp and captured inside the gutsy templates of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings or St. Paul and the Broken Bones, the blue-eyed soul boy wonder saturates in a pool of rollicking R&B filled with big horns, big guitar riffs and animated rhythms. “How It Used to Be” kicks off the album using the science of James Brown’s “There Was a Time” inside Stax grooves. Alongside songwriter Paul Writt, Dickinson composes much of the music around narratives about vexed relationships, lots of heartbreak and the longing for love, but you probably couldn’t tell it inside the upbeat spirits of the Sam & Dave-sounding “Away from Me” (“It’s hard that I thought, it’s harder than I dreamed/That you are away from me”) or in the catchy throwback vibes of “Don’t Come Running Back” (“Why did I think you were my missing link?”). He does happen to break the proverbial ice of the downcast blues with the inspirational slow burner “Lift Your Head.”
Aside from the occasional ballad (“Our Day”), the ten-track set rides on a tapestry of buoyant soul, although the songs lack the refreshing sing-a-long pop appeal and polish that H-D-H and Motown carved out. For creative control, it’s probably a good thing that wasn’t the end result. If Dickinson had played that hand of cards, the set would have gained sharp comparisons with some of Mayer Hawthorne’s usual retro outfits. Plus Dickinson’s vocals – at times, stretching into Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall semantics – are in a different ballpark from most of his industry peers.
He isn’t exactly safe from lurking into murky waters. The deluxe edition – rife with mixes and acoustic versions – tries so hard to please every human being and in the end hardly paints a strong impression. Of the nine dance mixes featured, only a handful obliterate what transpired before. The funky house tucked inside the Music G Funk mix of “How It Used to Be” overshadows everything heard on the original. The EIGHTminusEIGHT remix of “I’ve Gone, I’ve Quit,” decorated with futuristic whirls and an entrancing mix of Soul II Soul-esque piano, is also worth spinning. All the others seem to be way too vexed with Eurodisco or trivial loops and beats. The moral of the Goldilocks and the Three Bears fairy tale is always the perfect rule of thumb for painting the perfect impression: To win the curious, starting off with just a little isn’t exactly a bad strategy. Modestly recommended.
By J Matthew Cobb