Tony Stamp reviews a sonic 'waiting room' by UK soul artist Jorja Smith, the second album from Christchurch lo-fi pop genius Pickle Darling, and an EP that merges Guinean sensibilities with Swedish synths by Falle Nioke and sir Was.
Be Right Back by Jorja Smith
When UK singer Jorja Smith headlined Auckland’s Laneway Festival, off the back of her first album Lost & Found, she was twenty years old. She’s twenty three now, and has promised fans a follow up soon, but in the meantime, has put out an eight track sonic ‘waiting room’ appropriately called Be Right Back, that’s more adventurous than anything on her debut.
The single 'Addicted' starts the project - she’s specified this isn’t an album, or an EP, but a project - and it’s a stunner, a light jungle rhythm propelling her typically downbeat vocal. I mean that in the soulful sense - she is after all bemoaning a romantic partner drifting away - but the production turns this into capital P pop, sounding buoyant even with experimental touches like a chopped up and reversed guitar.
Against this backdrop Smith's voice really soars, and it’s hard not to be impressed with how she subtly shifts her tone over the song's course, gradually cranking up the emotion. It’s uplifting, miles away from the Brit Soul of Lost and Found, and it’s not the only gem here.
'Digging' is another track that’s notable for its innovation, riding over the thump of toms, a chanted ‘huh’ in the chorus, even a cheeky bit of cowbell. There’s a sense of urgency that was missing on Smith’s debut, and she meets it with real conviction in her vocal.
The track 'Burn' might be the one that’s closest to her past output, a UK Soul groove with a knockout punch courtesy of a killer vocal hook. There’s a moment in it when a piano enters, and it’s such a simple addition but you feel the song get exponentially better.
There are three credited producers on Be Right Back, compared to a whopping twelve on Lost and Found. The project has a sense of ease hanging over it, with Smith often sounding quite candid, that I think comes from the lack of pressure involved with a ‘proper’ album.
On 'Bussdown' she dabbles in Afroswing with typical poise, and some inventive harmonies. The track features South London rapper Shaybo, who forgoes her usual paint-stripping rhymes for something much more introspective.
Be Right Back isn’t seamless. There are a few tracks in its middle that are pleasant - listening to Jorja Smith sing is always enjoyable - but perhaps a bit bland. The majority of these songs, however, are real winners, and if these are the ones that aren’t going on the next album, I can’t wait to hear what’s in store.
She finishes with 'Weekend', pairing heartfelt financial advice with an effortless, soaring falsetto. It’s the most emotive thing here, and, as is the intention with this project, will almost certainly leave you wanting more.
Cosmonaut by Pickle Darling
Bedroom recording is nothing new. But it is much more common than it used to be, thanks in no small part to digital technology, which opened up all sorts of possibilities for musician’s imaginations to run wild without them ever leaving the couch. It also opens up new ways to get their music to audiences who otherwise might not find it. And so, for the last few years, some of this country’s best pop music has been coming from a shared flat in Christchurch.
Pickle Darling is the pseudonym of singer/ songwriter/ producer Lukas Mayo. They’re signed to a label in Slovakia, of all places, and specialize in delicate, confessional indie pop. Early track 'Moses' is a great example - lyrics about apricot wood and baked beans segue into ones about marriage and breakups, over a chord progression that’s comforting, and a palette of banjo and percussion that’s even more comforting.
Mayo makes music that, every time I listen to it, sends me to a deeply nostalgic place. And I’m not alone. Their profile since the first album Bigness has grown considerably - Grant Smithies interviewed them recently for a Sunday Magazine cover story, and American blog Stereogum highlighted a recent single.
On this second full length Cosmonaut, they’ve refined what makes them great, and I imagine that audience is only going to get bigger.
The album is intimate by nature, and more so because of how it was recorded. When I interviewed Mayo for RNZ they told me they’ll reach for whatever’s to hand and make a song with it, and as self deprecating as that sounds, it rings true. It’s music that constantly reinvents itself, like on opener 'Achieve Lift', where their voice unnervingly slides up and down the frequency range.
They pull a similar trick on 'Blushing', which starts as an acoustic ballad before whizzing off into electro clatter, Mayo morphing into a cute robot dispensing deeply romantic lyrics like “I am nothing more than commas hanging off your words”.
In a series of tweets recently, Mayo pointed out that they record at home because that’s all they can afford. Part of me thinks the music is better for it, the kind of petite, worn-around-the-edges sounds that come from laboring against adversity, or pushing at the limits of what’s achievable.
There’s also a working class aesthetic to the lyrics, like on 'Everything Is Flammable', where they sing about eating stale chips for lunch, and wanting a warmer house. Like all this music, it’s so inviting that it’s easy to miss the heavy undertone of a line like “I’m awake now but I can’t quite get up”.
Pickle Darling makes music that channels a lot of my favourite things - nineties artists like Sparklehorse, gentle electronic textures, DIY recording techniques - but it’s all in service of their incredible songs. They’re personal, heartfelt, and full of clever details like using the sound of breathing as percussion on a track called A Deep Breath. Lukas Mayo is exceedingly humble, but they make world class music. I’m looking forward to the rest of the world catching up.
Marasi by Falle Nioke and sir Was
One of the more unlikely musical stories I heard last year was one about a percussionist and singer from Guinea, West Africa, who moved to the UK. Nothing odd there, but the fact that he chose the coastal town of Margate to set up shop did raise an eyebrow. A chance meeting on a train with a Swedish producer added another wrinkle, and that meeting has resulted in quite a special EP.
Falle Nioke moved from Guinea in 2018, presumably bringing with him the range of African instruments he performs on. In 2020 he collaborated on an EP with the British producer Ghost Culture, and for his second, Marasi, has teamed up with Swedish musician sir Was, after that aforementioned train meeting.
Nioke sings in English and French as well as four African dialects, and listening to his music I get the sense that he wants to share his culture with Britain rather than change to suit them.
About the song 'Rain', Nioke says "In Africa people pray to the higher power for the rain as it’s so important for survival. This song is about that life."
The track 'Wonama Yo Ema' is similarly based around a received piece of wisdom. It translates to ‘do not look down on people’, Nioke explaining, “If you help someone who is poor or in need, don’t judge them or spoil their name in the community.”
Even without that meaning, it’s a track bathed in empathy, thanks to his warm vocal, and sir Was’ pristine production.
Three of the four tracks here start very stripped down, with Nioke playing stringed/ percussive instruments like the gongoma, bolon, or cassi. Sir Was will gradually add layers of synths and beats, until eventually the bass kicks in, and the songs ascend into euphoria.
Maybe it’s because I know he’s Swedish, but some of the production touches do sound very Euro to me, like the fake vinyl slow-down on 'Rain', or some of the synth trills. But there’s a musical alchemy happening here which means it all fits. On ‘Love’, a galloping snare falls away, until there’s just Nioke's voice and percussion over rich bass, synths and drums, and it’s appropriately blissful.
There’s a well-tuned sense of rhythm running through Marasi, and I think that’s part of why this blend of styles works so well. Nioke’s first EP was equally impressive, and he’s clearly blessed with a mellifluous set of pipes. If you watch clips of him he seems like a warm presence in general, and he’s able to translate that to tape. I’m looking forward to seeing who he collaborates with next. Final track N’Kanu is the EP’s most dramatic - mournful even - until it finally plateaus, a mix of sensibilities ending on a note of serenity that’s universal.