40:46 min • Young Turks • August 11, 2014
John Preston reviews
In many ways Tahliah Barnett still sounds like what many, way back in 1995, thought the future would sound. More sinuous and fragile maybe, but 26 year old FKA Twigs is much indebted to Bristol’s trip-hop takeover in the mid-nineties and in particular Adrian Thaws AKA Tricky. Along with Massive Attack and Portishead, Tricky defined the period with his doomy and sensual debut album Maxinquaye, which featured soulfully threatening vocals from his favourite muse Martina Topley-Bird – and it’s this artist who springs to mind more than any other whilst listening Barnett’s vocal abilities. Against the skipping, tapping and whirring percussion noises, sporadic booming bass, hip hop and trap time-signatures, Barnett delivers two variations – a barely there, traditional R&B fluttering falsetto and a surprisingly clear baritone; a marvellous, devastating contrast frequently exchanged during the same song.
It may not be 1995 anymore – explicit and unimaginative sexuality has replaced mystery and ambiguity – and this is what has partly driven what seems an uncommonly insatiable appetite for this young singer, who almost constantly remains somewhat hidden in all respects. LP1 was preceded by two 4-track EPs which have served as an introduction to the singer (none of those tracks are included here) and accompanying each of these songs was a highly stylised video; no-one could tell who this person was though, so obscured by the surreal and vivid images – a slippery and repeatedly oral Chris Cunningham come Grace Jones ‘Corporate Cannibal’ body morphing aesthetic. These portraits proved irresistible and have made FKA Twigs the absolute doyenne of tumblr cool; the hype starts here indeed. Stripped then of these visuals as one is when listening to the 10 tracks here (at the time of writing only one song has visual accompaniment) the overall impact is not always as strong when relying entirely on melodic and sonic ability but a lot of the time it exceeds what has been heard to date such is the strength of the song writing.
‘Two Weeks’ is a massive and masterful song, the highlight of LP1, and its straight-out-of-the-box perfection would be an achievement for any artist, new or established. Staccato delivery and clipped annunciation surround the only explicit references to sex, and sexual competitiveness, on the album. “I can fuck you better than her…..my thighs are apart for when you’re ready to breath in,” are an example of this but it’s the reference to “pull out that incisor” and “flying like a screaming falcon” that add another altogether otherworldly layer that so befits what we know of Barnett, a darker and by far more disturbing extreme to go to. ‘Video Girl’, like ‘Two Weeks’, is another of the more typically structured and sturdier songs which will have people reeling off names like Brandy, Aaliyah and Tweet – sweet-voiced R&B artists who actively encouraged producer involvement to create music that was bleaker and more experimental than the norm expected at the time within the genre. But ‘Video Girl’ is auto-biographical; it references her time as a dancer in music videos by the likes of Jessie J and Kylie Minogue immediately before this album’s release and the subsequent change of hierarchy. “Is she the girl that’s from the video?” leering demand is met with Barnett’s subsequent denial, “I can’t recognise me”. The second chorus slows down just enough for the listener to think there may be a fault with their copy of the track, as though it’s malfunctioning; it’s a disquieting and magical little trick.
‘Hours’ creaks up slowly like a sticky corrugated shutter, produced by indie female favourite Dev Hynes, and has the best example of this soft/hard vocal dynamic where the later verses become strident demands as opposed to the earlier girly infatuations. ‘Closer’ is sublime Gregorian chamber pop ending with the devastating (I think) “all these years in isolation, isolation, isolation” and ‘Give Up’ sees the singer take the role of forceful encourager and rock. ‘Pendulum’ starts with the clack of a stick being rattled around a cotton wool lined barrel with Barnett sounding as though she may dissolve into the background due to emotional upheaval. It’s one of the songs here, and odd therefore that it’s the sole production by pop god Paul Epworth, that feels pleasant enough but inadequate – the most surprising thing you could say about Barnett certainly. But it’s misleading as eventually it becomes somewhat of a centrally placed heart to the album and its warmth burns through you. ‘Lights On’ and album closer ‘Kicks’ are at the weaker end of LP1, both tracks promise something that never fully develops or is reached and it’s here that Barnett is reminiscent of Kelela’s Cut 4 Me and the slow jams that appear on her album. Production levels are startling high and the vocals are pure R&B sweetness but there is a little either in the way or melody or mood here.
LP1 is a record that at first seems to be somewhat slight considering the heft of everything that surrounds it. I was lucky enough to have this album a good 2 weeks before it was released and can say that after initially forming an opinion that wasn’t as favourable as this one, it kept drawing me back. It was as though I hadn’t heard all of the tracks yet but had retained enough of a clatter or a buzz or a divine falsetto being slowed down to a stuttering machine that I needed to go back and finish them properly, to give the record a fair chance. It’s only through these repeated listens that some of the tracks here really show themselves, it isn’t a slight record at all, far from it in fact. FKA Twigs debut is wholly impressive and bewitching and stands up as a cohesive and single-minded debut; let it also be known that she also wrote every track here. A brilliant and wholly exciting new talent on the British black music scene, whatever that music may be.
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