Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Selah Sue - Selah Sue (2011) REVIEW

Selah Sue, real name Sanne Putseys, is a Belgian singer/songwriter with a Jamaican soul. Her influences are Lauren Hyll, Bob Marley, Erykah Badu and M.I.A. while her voice is some raggamuffin, less souple and virtuosic version of Amy Winehouse. On her eponymous debut album, Selah Sue succeeds to sound like none of them, no songs are neither reggae nor nu-soul nor even R&B but a personal mix of all of those influences. Musically, the closest affiliation could be a more rougher around the edge Lily Allen, but where Allen keeps a rather clean white-ass voice, Selah Sue's phrasing and articulation is more, yes, Jamaican. She's a little blonde girl from the surroundings of Belgian town Leuven and she's therefore one striking example of musical globalization. When we are listening to whatever continental European band playing rock, we don't think anymore that rock comes from rhythm'n blues, and blues itself, the roots still deeply anchored in the United States. We even feel the same about jazz, there are so many famous and great European jazz musicians that it doesn't matter anymore. Same with rap and hip hop, they are accepted as international music styles, there's French, Dutch and even Russian rap. It doesn't matter either. But when it comes to reggae, ragamuffin, soul or funk sung in a near perfect imitation of the afro-american singers, it's hard not to wonder. And then, the trap is wide open, and I fall into it right away. Take whatever Belgian or Swedish rock bands, surely when their songs are interpreted in English, who still thinks their vocals are imitations of their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, I believe near nobody anymore. Well, maybe artists like Selah Sue will do the same for reggae or soul, etc., one can be a white-ass whoever grown up in a little town somewhere in Flanders or Bavaria or Lombardy and be drowned at an earlier age to soul and comes out as the next James Brown. It doesn't matter anymore where you're coming from, furthermore it doesn't matter what's your ethnic background.

This introduction looks very obvious, ask anyone, he or she will say "but we all know that", but then I could ask this question : why is it that when a little blondie Belgian girl comes out with a soul and reggae infected album, she's immediately considered less worthy of our admiration than her Afro-American colleagues? However, one of the best female soul singer of the last decade is without doubt Amy Winehouse, she's neither Afro nor American, she's a white-ass, if rather tanned, Jew born in London, United Kingdom. Well, further East, on Continental Europe, there's Selah Sue to count with.

Artists and musicians, being near always one step ahead of everyone else, already made, yeah, the step. Real Afro-American Cee-Lo Green, also one half of Gnarls Barkley, accepted a duet with our little Lady on the song "Please" on this debut album. He was so enthusiastic with the result that he decided to put that same song on his own album "The Ladykiller" released in November last year. His Majesty Roger Nelson aka Prince, on personal request, asked Selah Sue to open up for his concerts in Antwerp last year. Meshell Ndegeocello produced the song "Mommy", also on Selah Sue's debut. I believe the point is made.

Selah Sue was only 19 when she issued her first EP "Black Part Love" in 2008, which contains six songs, all near exclusively played on acoustic guitar. And you know what? As simple as the songs are, they sound pretty well in this outfit. Five of these songs reappear on Selah Sue's debut, new interpretations, new clothes, but little Sue didn't fall for production wizardry, there are horns and beats and backing vocals but it's still very direct, there's a band playing, and her acoustic guitar is always pretty clear in the mix, her vocals even gain some more depth and maturity, Selah sounds more confident but she hasn't lost anything of her affecting delivery, there's soul all over.

The album begins with two new songs "This World" and "Peace of Mind" which are both rather unimpressive, there're good but not memorable. The production could be brighter, the beats are too shy, the horns a bit too low in the mix. Then comes her local hit "Raggamuffin", which has not changed much since that "Black Part Love EP", which is for the better, this song is a stand out, the hooks and melody are infecting enough. It's getting more serious with the album version of the song "Black Part Love". The song open quite worryingly with a pulsing electronic synth sound introducing near any shit techno there is until the bass, drums and Selah's voice enter and you are not that far from M.I.A. confronting energy except that Selah is a melodist and a more soulful singer; through the song she's getting musically closer to Janelle Monáe while keeping her own ragamuffin inspired vocals performance. "Mommy" follows and is the first ballad on the album, acoustic guitar, piano, some strings and discreet percussion makes it almost a genuine folk song with Selah's affecting vocals which touches the right spot right at your spine. "Explanations" is very close to the version on the EP. The already mentioned duet with Cee-Lo Green comes next and it's a gem. It begins like a classic James Brown's ballad with these typical staccato horns, drums and bass to enter a little further into near John Barry's James Bond territory with thick layers of Hammond organ while Cee-Lo and Selah are humming into the song. This track is another standout from start to end but it looks alien on this album, it was clearly produced to fit Cee-Lo's "The Ladykiller" esthetics more than the more humble Selah Sue's debut. Nevertheless, one can hear Selah Sue in a Hollywood decor and she surely doesn't stay in the shadow, she's Cee-Lo Green's pair, and Cee-Lo is an expert and brilliant soul singer on his own. The next song "Summertime" is another highlight, and the second ballad on the album. It starts acoustic guitar and some piano notes, you could almost expect Yael Naim or Norah Jones to enter the scene, but it's indeed Selah almost whispering, but her voice is unmistakable. An extremely affecting song dealing with loneliness "do you feel alone? All by yourself. Do you need something more... than this?". Selah is no Leonard Cohen or Suzanne Vega, but the simplicity of her words added to her sensitive delivery are even more poignant for that. "Summertime" is also one of the only songs where Selah is actually shouting, for a very short moment, broken by emotion, a real cry, and she completely avoids sounding pathetic or overly sentimental. That song strikes me as an example of how Selah Sue stands out from her pairs, at that young an age, she succeeds to express her melancholy in the most simple and honest way. I haven't heard this too often in any Afro-American soul, funk, R&B, something music. It reminds me, in a very modest way, of the acoustic Prince's classic "Sometimes It Snows In April" from the album "Parade" in 1986. The last highlight could be "Just Because I Do" which is the closest to Massive Attack/Tricky production she ever comes to. This is really an imitation, with a less fancy production, which accidentally or not suits the rest of the album because of it, but strangely enough, and in my opinion, it works, even if only as a Massive Attack's b-side.

This album, with all its innocence, sometimes clumsiness, is clearly a debut album like we don't here often anymore, it's a prerequisite for new artists and bands to deliver a perfect debut album nowadays. Maybe because this album was anyway recorded in Belgium of all countries, maybe because that prerequisite is less important around here, the music business being more tolerant, the market being smaller, I don't know, but it's refreshing, surely in such a marketable music genre. But because Selah Sue could still have control on her album, she for instance decided to focuse on her older teenager lifestyle songs (1), this album is even more sincere and close to her audience for this same reason. But the talent she is already showing here is utterly impressive. Let's hope her personality, and maybe the fact she's still a University student in Psychology, will help her to keep her grounded while being able to translate her already larger-than-life experiences into further and even better musical performances and songs.

6.5 out of 10

(1) http://www.selahsue.com/en/bio

1 comment:

  1. Great article!!! So glad I can purchase her music on iTunes!!


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