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Ramona (Sugar Mountain)


THERE ARE ANY NUMBER of ways to define soul music but one I really like is songs where pain is comforted.

That pain doesn’t have to be washed away (as if it were that easy) or dismissed, and it doesn’t require an answer/solution (as if it were that easy) or distraction. No, what that soul singer, that soul writer, that soul listener needs is a moment of grace, a moment of understanding and strength, that acknowledges the pain but isn’t rendered void by it. Soul music is about feeling it all and not being afraid to show it all, but knowing it isn’t the final word.

Ramona is a soul album, and a damn fine one: pain is here, everywhere, but comfort exists; emotions are unfettered but not without purpose. And it reflects its emotions musically with the same freedom, or refusal to compress safely.

It’s a full-bodied record that often finds an orchestra when a band might have been and is happy to put low throbbing bass where rhythm would normally sit. It’s a record that when the organ comes over in I’m Getting Married To The War it gradually usurps the centre until it fills every space in front of you. And when Common Man positions Cummings as a rider and horse on the edge of escape from the ordinary, the landscape evoked is canyons and steep descents, long horizons and the promise of thundering hooves.

Something Going ‘Round grows in stately measures that create an inevitable momentum: from an organ bed and fourth beat drum-and-tambourine stamp, through choir and timpani and Cummings’ voice pushing into exasperation/hurt, into a full Spector sound wall where strings, voices, guitars and more suggest The Righteous Brothers, or maybe Elvis in early ‘70s drama mode.

It’s the first song of the album and there’s no holding back. You know the territory ahead now: ragged at its heart but sophisticated in its texture, enveloped and yet raw. Sung in a voice that is fathoms deep and miles wide and yet incredibly close and intimate: there isn’t anyone around at the moment who sounds like this.

Along with producer Jonathan Wilson (who understands what it means to go all the way and then a bit further), Cummings offers songs that feel even longer and thicker than its predecessor, 2022’s Storm Queen, a record that could hardly be called drama-free – the clue was in the title after all – but still maintained a relatively modest presentation. Here, whether rousing or simmering, crushed or resolute, feelings do not shy away from our eyes and ears.

It’s also a record where delicacy can sit on and above the thickness. Where Without You (another song with intimations of country, literal and musical) lets acoustic bass and cello take subdued space where it could have blown matters away, and in On And On, even as Cummings’ voice strains at the leash, the rhythm stays steady, resolute even, and trumpets keep their gaze lowered.

In other words, Ramona isn’t merely substituting big for meaningful, it just isn’t afraid to let every meaning have its place. To let a song such as A Precious Thing maintain its contradictory impulses: firstly, its glistening harp (?) and low horns calm against a vocal that rears its head with cracks showing; then in its lyrics that describe love as both precious and something she cares not about, that time is something which rolls by and yet right now seems not to move at all.

In the end, Ramona asks itself, or Cummings asks herself, stop or go? Be buried or lift yourself above? In On And On, Cummings says “I think I’ll go on”, which we can read as referring not so much to life as trusting and opening, though someone would probably point out that’s pretty much what life is anyway, isn’t it?

 After 44 minutes of Ramona you believe that that is the truth, that she will go on, even if it may have been a close-run thing. You believe because nothing you’ve heard has felt anything short of truth. The full truth. Soul music.





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