Wednesday, 9 April 2008

ESTELLE: Magnificent

To be straight, Shine, the second and better Estelle album, is everything those Brit School painting-soul-by-numbers recidivists pray nightly that they could equal, if never surpass, and given the disproportionate attention paid (not least by this blog, on a strawman basis) to the nice white graduates to whom the industry apparently now owes its entire living it is difficult to dispute Estelle's claim of endemic racism, even if "American Boy" has become the latest reason why it's worth continuing to bother with the singles chart.

But then, also note that she had to go to America, and to John Legend as avatar, to get her music down as she heard it, with the producers and musicians best equipped to realise it; The 18th Day has so much promise and yet it still sounds like an agreeably upgraded demo. Sometimes one wonders how far British soul has travelled from the days of Loose Ends (since so much of it seemingly strives to be Five Star instead).

However, she went to the States, sought out and Wyclef and Swizz Beatz and has magically made them matter again, too; "American Boy" is now a richly deserved number one and thus must be written about at length elsewhere - still, feel those rhythmic, regular whoops with which the singer audibly applauds Kanye's bespoke cameo and sense a new, more colourful world opening up, just as the song intended. Even when relatively down - "No Substitute Love" - she conjures up the song George Michael should now be making (it borrows heavily from "Faith" but makes it startlingly new, and harmonically and emotionally). She persuades and charms a lover into discovering each other - the silky lovers rock of "Come Over" - rather than hammering them over the head with a process server's list of demands. When the storm becomes quiet, she remains perky and pointed; there is real carnality of the mutual dialogue between Estelle and Legend on "You Are."

"So Much Out The Way" might be one of the best things in which Wyclef has ever been involved; its serene stasis rudely blown apart by Tackhead beats and lowering barks of conflict. And note how Screaming Jay Hawkins and Edwin Starr get chopped into deceptive cutlets to form an unlikely but logical mid-bridge to recent Britney with "Wait A Minute (Just A Touch)." But mostly this is potentially the shiniest of summer party albums; "In The Rain" samples Love Unlimited at 78 rpm but knows that the rainbow has already been formed. "Pretty Please (Love Me)" is a duet with Cee-Lo Green and sounds like the joyous, missing exit route from The Odd Couple. And the closing title track comes on like "1980" with its pregnant promise made manifest; now full-scale and panoramic, the confident declaration of a woman who knows she has reached the summit and wonders why so many others are content to settle in midway.

In general Shine plays like a dream Norman Jay mixtape just made for driving down the A40 on an idle July Wednesday mid-morning. But today, my favourite track, of all tracks, is (gasp!) the token Mark Ronson production, "Magnificent" - and we can't get away from her London music roots since she keeps us acutely aware of it throughout the album with that beautifully cracked voice of hers; sometimes yearning, at others diving with snarling confidence, and firmly rooted in her origins. It's a trick that very few others - least of all singer/songwriters - have pulled off.

However, "Magnificent" - which immediately rises to the top of today's list since it is based on a sample of Dave and Ansil Collins' immortal "Double Barrel," one of the greatest of all number ones, and a beginning of time for many. Without once aping or reflecting the original, Estelle devises an entirely new and extremely sunny pop skank from its stout girders, bouncing like the bluest of trampolines, wanting interaction so much, oh so much, and Kardinal's agreeable toast butters the glory to the yellowest sun you ever saw in pop. And Shine pops more than any other pop album I've heard so far this year. Flee the gloomy, Cameronite black and WHITE mourning for a 1964 which can never happen again and realise that, just as Dusty had to go to Memphis and Lulu to Atco, so Estelle has gone to Atlantic - and this may yet turn out to be a remarkable triumph, even in that distinguished company.