Earlier this year we have been treated with a delightful surprise: Michael Kiwanuka recorded and released his performance at the impressive Round Chapel. Landmark grade II listed building, situated in North East London, functions nowadays as a church as well as a vivid arts and community venue. Renovated by Hackney Historic Buildings Trust, the chapel perfectly suited Kiwanuka’s vintage styled soul.
Twenty five year old Londoner with Ugandan origins had been working both as a session guitarist and a supporting act until – some time after his first solo show in Oxford – he signed to Communion Records. Young label, founded by Ben Lovett [of Mumford & Sons], Kevin Jones [former Cherbourg] and Ian Grimble [producer], released Kiwanuka’s first two EPs: Tell Me A Tale [June 2011] and I’m Getting Ready [September 2011]. His debut album under Polydor Records saw the light of day in March this year, with a title song Home Again as its first single.
While Michael’s first recordings as well as the acoustic sessions had a really unpretentious, unpolished soul vibe, Home Again tracklist abounds in extremely smooth, almost overproduced songs: dangerously close to radio-friendly pop tunes. The man behind the final result is Paul Butler of The Bees, who clearly has a thing for what I would call a faux retro sound. From Ottis to Curtis, with softness of early Van Morrison, sizeable portion of funk in style of Jon Lucien, maybe a bit of Gil Scott Heron influence even – the inspiration here is obvious. This is not neo soul – Kiwanuka’s debut album sounds like recorded in late sixties. Seems like nothing new or groundbreaking, but it is one hell of a pleasant and likeable piece of music. Easy on the ear, easy on the heart. And when you listen to the live versions of those studio songs, especially the ones recorded at the Round Chapel, it is obvious how skilled and talented the author of Home Again is. Surrounded by high class musicians, he is able to put a new life into those tracks, explore slightly different arrangements and widen the variety of possibilities. The sound gets pretty amazing here: genuine soul vibes mixed with juicy saxophones, sharp jazz flute softened by strings and brought together by Michael’s mellow voice. Just take moment and listen to this breathtaking version of the opening track, Tell Me A Tale:
Round Chapel Session includes five tracks, all of them available on youtube. These are mostly songs from Michael’s debut album, but stronger, definitely more vibrant. In spite of being an enjoyable record, Home Again appears quite flat in comparison to the live recordings. Like sepia screen used to fake photographs into vintage, the filters used during studio production kind of deprived the sound of its original depth. Nevertheless, Kiwanuka remains one of the most promising talents of ambitious pop and his songs of simple words and crafty, delightful arrangements will surely please those who enjoy warmhearted soul music.