Black Acid Soul (Foundation Music/BMG)
I’VE FALLEN HARD for Black Acid Soul, from Marley Munroe, a.k.a Lady Blackbird, on multiple grounds: song quality, vocal appeal, arrangement and sound. It feels like one that's going to stick around for years to come.
But there are two things about me coming to this that are of minor importance yet need stating up front. In This album came out towards the end of last year so it’s not exactly new, if that matters to you, and was discovered only because I almost literally stumbled across it when chasing some psych/acid rock albums and the name popped up.
To that point: while Munroe may have a background in rock and R&B (and possibly more: she’s been around in Los Angeles a little while it seems), her debut as Lady Blackbird is not in any way acid or psych rock. Or rock at all.
This is an album of soul music as filtered through jazz, or jazz filtered through folk and intense cabaret, with an almost dispassionate sensuality – a seeming contradiction, but actually a really fine balance that leaves a level of ambiguity around want and need and hurt.
In Tim Hardin’s always beautiful It’ll Never Happen Again, all emotional possibilities are available to your interpretation, and each one of them feels true in a breathtaking and yet always low key three minutes and 38 seconds. In Reuben Bell’s It’s Not That Easy she, and you, move back and forth between pain and residual joy, and tremble on the edge of letting go.
Munroe’s voice travels low to the ground, its grain visible but not defining, and when she pulls back and aims high the progression is sudden but smooth, without ever feeling light. She moves just behind the beat enough to make you unconsciously hold yourself in anticipation – of what? Sometimes of nothing happening at all; sometimes just too much – so that she leads a listener, but only just.
It is an album, as produced by her cowriter on four songs, Chris Seefried, defined by absences as much as what is present.
Across the 11 tracks there are breakouts with electric guitar, drums, trumpet (from Trombone Shorty), strings, what sounds like a melodica, and briefly the appearance of a backing vocal choral, (all three in the febrile tenseness of the title track, where Munroe doesn’t sing). But in the main it is presented as a small ensemble of piano, upright bass and voice – the keys here played by Miles Davis alumnus, Deron Johnson who centres everything subtly, sometimes by the barest touches as in Bill Evans’ Fix It, with words by Seefried.
There has already been a remix of one track, Collage, in the manner of a more dance-oriented, almost R&B track, however, this is a record for sitting still and feeling, with the trio positioned “metres away” on a small stage with a single spotlight. Almost by definition it is a night time record, but you need not worry about that because it makes whenever you hear it night time.
And above it all hangs the inspiration, or spectre, of a not insignificant figure. While we may detect the spacing and phrasing of Roberta Flack, and at other times hear the light bending of Amy Winehouse, Munroe builds Lady Blackbird on the foundation of Nina Simone.
It’s there in her inhabiting territory where emotional control, the earthing of jazz and the elevation of soul all look for space; it’s in her mature (or seasoned and reasoned) tone in the face of vicissitudes; and there in the way she can take a Joe Walsh song (Collage, from his days with The James Gang) or the track recorded by The Voices Of East Harlem (Beware The Stranger) and make them feel not so much separate from the originals as contextually her own.
Even the name, Lady Blackbird, is a nod to Simone’s self-penned 1963 song, Blackbird, and all of that takes an element of confidence. Yet the boldest move Munroe makes here is recording, then opening the album with that song. There is no escaping.
Over a continuing interplay between bass and piano that walks the line between tension and understatement, Monroe arches her voice, letting show flashes of emotional openings, before shutting them down and focusing you again on the present. And while it doesn’t take over from the original, it establishes the tenor and the intentions of the album fearlessly.