48:11 min • Rinse Records • February 7, 2014
John Preston reviews
There are at least two things that the South London raised trio of Adele, Jessie Ware and Katy B have in common. Apart from all having spent their formative years absorbing the culture that is inherent to Brixton, which subsequently informed and influenced their musical sensibilities, all three are notoriously fame wary. Being somewhat at odds with the concept of what being a Pop Star actually entails, these young women have seemed endearingly reluctant to outgrow their initial fan bases, which consisted predominately of friends and family. This also confirms their main motive for making music – their compulsive and overwhelming love of melody and rhythm and of making connections.
Adele now performs in gigantic stadiums, and at the Grammys, but there are constant hints that she will become a recluse sooner rather than later. Jessie Ware has found an audience with the new generation of (pop up) wine bar sophisticates and vogueing American, gay men. Katy B meanwhile has received her education and is selling her records to, amongst others, London’s funky house and UK garage club community. Out of her contemporaries Katy Brien is the one that most represents youth culture and associated underground dance music trends expertly. She may have been warned by her management to avoid going to small, local clubs, to help build the fame surrounding her, but don’t they understand that it’s intrinsic to her craft?
On A Mission, Katy B’s debut from 2011, established her authenticity. She wasn’t just being produced by dance artists, she was actually part of the scene itself and creating music that would be played in the clubs that she would visit. The difference between that record and this one is actually subtle, a case of splitting hairs in many ways, but certainly significant. The first three tracks on Little Red are evidence that the musical influence and direction this time around is equally American influenced as it is British, something that was not heard on On A Mission whose roots never strayed too far from South London. ‘Next Thing’, the album’s terrific opener, hurls itself at you with its retro beat progression and, in particular, the staggered and broken synth-hook paying homage to Inner City’s ‘Good Life’ and the house music that prevailed at the time.
‘5am’ continues in much the same vein and is the stronger song of the two, incorporating a quite delicious decline in the chorus’s chord progression which ends with the word ‘Valium’ and is akin to the drop in anxiety and energy that taking this drug can induce. ‘Aaliyah’ sees fellow Brixtonite Jessie Ware trading verses with Brien in what is a sly tribute to both the late R&B singer’s fluid and sensual phrasing and Dolly Parton’s pyscho-drama classic ‘Jolene’. It’s is beautifully effective, appropriately seductive and bewitchingly sisterly, it also stands alone as a brilliant dance track.
These first three songs form a sort of loose narrative that begins with an introduction to the club and its characters, subsequently getting lost in the crowds, and finally addressing late night early morning sexual tension and competitiveness. Little Red is an album whose first half is unflinchingly strong, and the fourth track is a very big pop ballad indeed – the comedown perhaps. It is blocked out with banks of mood synths, significant key changes and a vocal performance from Brien that is as impressive as it’s believable. And that’s when that big difference of her debut versus Red really makes itself known. There wasn’t anything on the well received and competent On A Mission that comes close to ‘Crying for No Reason’ for pop sensibility or, come to that matter, the three tracks that precede it.
There are more highlights further in with the sinewy, twisting ‘Tumblin Down’ and the moody house of ‘Everything’ is reminiscent of early ’90s house group Electribe 101. ‘Play’ is a lovely, bright Motown influenced beat track featuring Sampha, and ‘Sapphire Blue’ is a gorgeous mid tempo track that expertly delights with repetitive phrases and wonderment. On the very tail end of decent enough ballad ‘Emotions’ Katy B’s old drum and bass inflections burst forward for the manic final and it’s only on the last track ‘Still’, which is a ballad too far, when the lifeless arrangement starts to sound derivative and dull.
It goes without saying that Little Red is available in a ‘deluxe’ format, which offers up a very generous additional five songs, all new. All five are very strong indeed. Replacing the (very) few weaker tracks on the main version’s release with the likes of the warped and wonderful ‘Wicked Love’ for example would have resulted in turning an album that is very good into one that’s exceptional. The additional tracks stand apart from the album proper however in that they are all archetypal UK garage and 2 step, including an M J Cole produced cup-up vocal track harking back to the genre’s heyday around the turn of the decade. If you want the definitive version of Little Red then buy the deluxe. Katy B has made a brilliant record, why would you not want to hear it all?