City Of Longing (tinaharrod.com)
This may strike you as unlikely for Tina Harrod, who has the talent of a giant but the profile of a fringe dweller in a country which for so long didn’t really know what to do with soul, jazz and R&B, with strong women (or let’s face it, women at all), and especially with strong women performing soul, jazz and R&B. There were two words that came to mind as this album seeped into me: Beyoncé Knowles.
Not that City Of Longing is an Antipodean take on sexual and social awakening ala Beyonce, or a powerful case for black lives in the centre of culture ala Lemonade. And it certainly is not a chance to bend bodies into new shapes so you can put a ring on it.
Rather it is that this album finds Harrod exploring every corner of and beyond soul/R&B, her connection to them operating in such a freewheeling way that stylistic differences disappear and a personal vision emerges. And that vision is delivered with strength and certainty that casts aside the petty naysayers who thrive here.
These songs traverse hard-edged soul, and what is almost doo-wop; funk that swings on bass and brass, and moments of tenderness; a casual way with jazz, and some side-eye modern R&B. Linking them is the centered sound and songwriting - Harrod and her principal collaborator, Stu Hunter, mostly, but also co-writers Dave Symes, Aron Ottignon, and Matt McMahon – and Harrod’s vocal fierceness.
Two things about that. Firstly, that “fierceness” isn’t some euphemism for angry/difficult/strident in the way it’s often applied to women who aren’t being compliant. Would that more were fierce! Would that more had the insight and strength of Red Pill Girl: “They will lay gold/They will lay silver at her feet/But she won’t take it.”
In this case I mean the focus she’s brought to both the performances and the tone of the album. Whether wistful-with-an-edge in the title track, sanguine even in her disgust in Trophy Girl, or wise and clear in Loaded, Harrod controls the moment. Her voice, which shows its cracks as signs of life not signs of wear, “knows” truths, and has heart.
“The first time I ever saw you, you stirred something deep and wide/ You were wearing a mint green overcoat, and it was beautifully lined inside,” she says in I Hope I Don’t Fall In Love With You, a song about the great love of her life whose imprint on her is through this album. “You had an accent from the motherland, and a mind full of contraband/And when I tried to walk away, I walked into quicksand.”
That said, there’s no room to hide from her gaze in Last Man Standing – the most probing combination of rock, hip hop, agit-pop and grand ‘70s soul - where Harrod asks “whose side are you on?” of more than a few of us, at a time when “all the slaves dance/clap your hands, raise the flag/And all the slaves dance/Stand for the country that you fight for”.
Secondly, Hunter and Harrod’s sonic palette is rich. In Charlie’s Time Is Up, the downtown sax and trombone (Matt Keegan and James Greening) are punchy and pungent; the mix of tension and release-into-agitation in Blinding Light marries synthesised and natural sounds into a kind of blaxsploitation meets Radiohead partnership; but in Until I Hear From You the sound is organic, enveloping and yet almost playful, even before the children’s choir arrives.
Meanwhile, the scattering-pigeons drumming of Evan Mannell in I Hope I Don’t Fall In Love With You provides the first hint of the discombobulating shifts in the funk to come when Hunter and Harrod deploy intercepting strings, flourishes of backing vocals and horny-handed guitar from Cameron Deyell - all providing a slap of early ‘90s Bowie.
Yes, that’s a whole lot of things thrown into the fruit basket as it were. But for Harrod, if life gives you lemons you make …. City Of Longing.