posted on September 15, 2009 19:00
A review of the album "Travelling Like The Light" by VV Brown
Review Snapshot: A continually interesting album using older influences in a modern manner, placing VV Brown head-and-shoulders above the "soul revival" stratum.
The Cluas Verdict? 8 out of 10
Full Review: In the past few years there has been no shortage of pop artists willing to dig into the past for inspiration, drawing from classic sources for songwriting ideas. Like most things in music, this has provoked some fierce debate; are the modern artists legitimately drawing influence from previous musical styles, or pilfering the ideas of the past to cynically create a brand identity? While the truth is likely to be somewhere in between (few artists truly disregard the power of presentation) one question arises either way: does the retro fascination produce creative, enjoyable music? Like the question of authenticity, it can go either way; for every faithful summoning of soul (music and emotion!) there is a sterile creation wrapped in nostalgic clothing.
Travelling Like The Light is possibly the most joyous sounding album from this musical tendency, built around the mesh of a retro music base and modern production gloss immediately familiar from antecedents such as Duffy and Winehouse. Brown’s reach is wider than other semi-revivalists however, with the artist listing relative oddities like VGM (Video Game Music, apparent in the prominent synths) as influences, while the older inspirations stretch beyond soul into doo wop and early Rock n’ Roll. “L.O.V.E” encapsulates this approach best, veering from polyrhythmic percussion to a chorus built around the archetypal rockabilly bassline. Such moments of sheer homage are scattered throughout the album, brash clichés that have fallen out of use in mainstream pop and are a joy to re-discover in new surroundings. Another triumphant track indulging in similar impudence is “I Love You,” with its somewhat precise title. However, the music itself is anything but played out - a crisp evocation of early 70s Motown balladry that stands as an exquisitely cool-handed effort on an album mainly characterised by its effervescence.
Like most records defined by their more immediate, sprightly songs, Travelling... has an undercurrent of wistfulness, in this case the disappointment of a failed relationship. “Leave!” screams angry despondency, Brown opining that “the one you loved is a fool,” her tale of disillusion accompanied by the gently-sighing backing vocals ubiquitous in American pop music of the pre-Rock n’ Roll era (and even creeping in to Rock as the music grew more commercialised). In a similar vein, “Shark In The Water” brings to mind the Motown girl groups with its formula of lovelorn lead singer backed by cooing vocals and gently-careering strings.
Despite the emphasis placed on Brown’s older influences, Travelling... is constantly underpinned by bubbling synths and drum machines. While these instruments are prominent throughout, at times they blend with the organic elements so well that they are almost subliminal, only recognised because of a stray note at the end of a song or a breakdown featuring only the unmistakeable sounds of programmed percussion. The effect is positive, an exclamation point making it clear that Brown isn’t pining for the past – a far cry from the other soul revivalists, whose music is constructed in a similar manner but cloaked in enough stagey artifice to suggest otherwise.
Travelling Like The Light comes off as much more than a series of exercises in subverting the kitschy, over-familiar sounds of early Rock n’ Roll and Soul (even if some of the enjoyment of this album is in how these sounds have been resurrected and presented so blatantly). VV Brown has made an album largely free from listless nostalgia, aided by the fantastic melding of various retro styles with a modern, glossy production (with each element complimenting the other in subtle reciprocation) and the buoyant songwriting that forms the core of the album. The last decade has demonstrated that the use of retro elements is a perilous one that can often result in an empty mining of the past; Travelling Like The Night does not fall into that trap, but uses each over-obvious component as just that, an interesting component rather than a source to leech off. Brown’s has succeeded in creating an instantly impacting pop album that manages to stand head and shoulders above most of the crowded “revival” stratum.