Friday, July 8, 2011

Duff Review: Hollie Cook "Hollie Cook"

Mr. Bongo Records
CD and LP

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Hollie Cook has branded her compelling mix of roots reggae and Sade-like, chanteuse-styled vocals (a contrast in styles that works brilliantly here) as "tropical pop." While this label connotes images of sculpted and curvy young bodies cavorting alongside crystalline Caribbean waters (and helps her to avoid having this album shunted solely to the reggae section of iTunes, the record shop, and radio playlists), the oftentimes gorgeous music and lyrics reflect a far less happy place--with lovers using, isolated from, betraying, and (psychologically) maiming each other.

Cook's producer/collaborator/co-songwriter Prince Fatty has done a superb job of creating a warm, confident, golden-era-of-the-70s reggae sound that plays extraordinarily well off Cook's modern pop vocals (and what a pure, ethereal instrument she's got) on her nine-track debut. The rotating backing band is consistently spot-on, with guest artists like guitarist Dennis Bovell (Linton Kwesi Johnson) and singer George Dekker (Pioneers) raising the level of quality even higher.

The album leads off with two tracks that comprise her excellent first single (reviewed by The Duff Guide to Ska here). "Milk and Honey" is about someone so removed from life--aware of everything going on, but disdainful of and unable to take any joy in it: "Every day/in the morning paper you/You got the News of the World/You're gonna make them change/It’s time to laugh all alone in your room/If only you could shine through the darkness." And the only path to salvation/deliverance (milk and honey are fruits of the promised land, after all) is to "taste" life again--to choose to live, not merely exist. "That Very Night" may remind one a bit of a Specials AKA In the Studio-type reggae excursion (where Dammers delved into alienation, madness, betrayal, addiction, and agoraphobia)--particularly Hollie's detached and disaffected vocal delivery (think Terry Hall) as she sings, "You are the perfect boy/for my brand new number/I have bought the purse/and the spring time flowers...all around, oh/You'll be a charming boy/not like my previous one/'Cause he disappeared and left me all alone/with my frozen heart...oh." The track is shimmeringly, nite club gorgeous, but could never mask the emptiness and pain of "going through the motions" evident at the core of Cook's vocals.

The cover of The Shangri-las' "Remember (Walking in the Sand)" is even more haunted and lonely in this reggay-fied version and, of course, recounts the shell-shocked devastation ("Oh, what will happen to/the light I gave to you/What will I do with it now?") at receiving a "Dear Jenny" letter after the singer's boyfriend went overseas (to war?). The protagonist of "Sugar Water (Look at My Face)" has been so damaged by her relationship with a lover that it's almost as if her very body chemistry has been monstrously transformed: "Look at my face/look what your charm has done to me/and the sugar water runs through my veins/it's really so odd...sweet darling, is it night or day?/Can you say my name?/Can't you see I'm losing my head because of you?" The spectacularly deep and dubby bass line of the track plods along, as if reflecting the singer's stumbling around in a daze, as she loses her grip on reality. It's a chilling song--one can almost imagine the inevitable and furious revenge to be visited upon the guy who messed with her.

"Shadow Kissing" starts out with "That Very Night's" eerie organ line, but then blossoms into a wonderfully different version of this cut with some lovely, evocative imagery: "I'm shadow kissing you/on my balcony/A serenade from you/echoes in the street...Oh, we know we're magical/I hear your thoughts/and you read mine." You can hear the longing and ache in her singing due to their inability to directly, physically connect, but it's like the very air they share transmits their feelings and touch.

In a way, the perfect, glowing reggae-pop of "Body Beat" (which may remind one--in a good way--of Scritti Politti's "Word Girl" off Cupid & Psyche '85) resolves all the conflict, tension, and misery that precedes it, both in sound and content. The errant lover has returned (for a duet with Horseman, whose toasting is excellent throughout the LP) back where she belongs, but doesn't regret the journey: "It's been so long since I've been home/(I've been missing you from the start!)/My body beats and I'm feeling raw/Too many places I have gone (Where?)/Playing the game/Scoring my name/It couldn't have been so wrong..."

Hollie Cook's album should go over very big with ska and reggae fans--but also could have massive appeal to the more pop-oriented or alternative scenes, which as of late seem to be much more receptive at least to reggae-hybrid artists (Santogold, MIA, etc.). If any new reggae record this year deserves to be heard and loved by a lot of people, it's this one.

Duff Guide to Ska Grade: A

1 comment:

Door Hangers said...
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