Manhaton [Release date 09.10.20]
By the time listener’s read a review like this they will probably have got used to the idea of an unlikely soul collaboration by three disparate talents from three different musical backgrounds, albeit bass playing producer Livingstone Brown used to tour and record with Robin Trower’s band.
Yet It still comes as something of a pleasant surprise that the music is for the most part fresh, expansive, full of deep grooves and (with the exception of ‘Hand To The Sky’) lyrical integrity, which allows Maxi Priest to pour everything into his phrasing in search of feel and an emotional connection.
This is specially so on the beguiling funk of ‘On Fire Like Zsa Zsa’, the kind of number on which his phrasing and Trower’ s imposing tone and wah-wah inflections give the track an extra input.
Livingstone Brown’s thumping bass locks everything together as the number works towards a memorable hook. It’s all neatly framed by some hovering strings and significant horns, as Trower’s wah-wah floats above a lilting groove.
The perfunctory ending creates a void which draws us into the sparse vocal and guitar intro of the outstanding ‘Walking Wounded’.
Maxi Priests clarity of diction, and effortless timbre teases out every last drop of emotional nuance as he uniquely personalises the lyrics.
‘United State Of Mind’ drips with retro cool, sophisticated funk and deep soul. And while Maxi Priest’s vocals seemingly occupy a pivotal role, it might be argued that you can trace the origins of this project back to Robin Trower’s restless search for musical fulfilment. In recent years he has explored a much more soulful direction outside of earlier career Rock/blues power trio template.
‘United State Of Mind’ is a catalytic project for all 3 core musicians, but significantly it provides Trower with a new context for his evocative tone.
His last few solo albums have almost been a spiritual quest in which he used his deep tonal array to convey the emotion and feel of a song, whereas his vocal was always just the right side of passable.
This album also provides him with the opportunity to delve into his original r&b origins.
Here, he’s surrounded by an organic live in the studio project, big on deeply felt grooves and lyrics, as the trio and accompanying musicians all serve the songs in the best way possible.
Best of all, Maxi Priest has the kind of emotional sensibility, lyrical depth and musical background to help shape an album that oozes a soul and funky feel, while Livingston Brown has the chops, producer’s ears and musical experience to glue it all together. And he does so with judiciously placed treacly bass lines and a mellifluous feel that always facilitates flow.
The end result is an impressive soul drenched debut album that uses spirited arrangements to avoid being just a little too comfortable.
Once they find their creative common ground the rest of the album is a variation on the same approach. They constantly search for deep grooves with a salient melody which Trower then fattens with an aching tone, leaving Priest to explore real feel, deeply felt emotions and often a meaningful message.
They intuitively top and tail the album with two of the best tracks, opening with the soul drenched title track, on a groove with an infectious chorus and Trower’s audacious guitar tone.
A retro, early 70’s sounding string arrangement explores the historic link between Creed Taylor’s CTI label (the Grover Washington Jr. era), Motown and the current soul renaissance.
The closing ‘Where Our Love Came From’ features Priest on close-to-the-mic vocals alongside a Farfisa sounding keyboard, and trademark Trower squalls that drip with emotion, feel and experience, but he holds enough back to provide the perfect resolution to the album.
In the interim, the trio add their own rich brush strokes but occasionally only just sidestep being ponderous with a mix of lingering hooks and lyrical eclecticism. ‘On Fire Like Zsa Zsa’ provides such an example, as Trower’s wah-wah provides the palette with another colour.
‘Sunrise Revolution’ is ostensibly a song about hope rather than ‘Sunrise’ climate activists of the same name. It employs an eclectic chorus to good effect, and Trower’s aching guitar lines hover rather than dominate a radio friendly track.
The trio move from the exhortation of revolution to a lesser ideal on the underwhelming ‘Hand To The Sky’, with the opening line; “Hey everybody, we got the power, To make the roof come down, The house is on fire, we can take it higher, Let’s turn it inside out.”
Happily, Trower’s outrageous squalls on the outro give the impression that he’s resolving something of substance, which apart from the groove itself is not really the case.
Maxi Priest is at his best when exploring musical tensions and delivering his own emotional impact to bring contrast to a succession of mid-paced tracks, especially when he explores a Curtis Mayfield feel on the philosophical late night funky feel of ‘Are We Just People?’
It’s a meditative track with a spiritually inquisitive lines such as: “Are we just people? Or is there really something more to be found?”
This brings out the best in Trower’s subtle use of deep-toned notes and wah-wah, while Livingstone Brown locks into bass heavy grooves.
Priest is equally good on ‘Bring It All Back To You’, on which he reveals his penchant for extending a vowel, as Trower adds intricately woven guitar parts.
The relentless pull and flow of a succession of atmospheric deep grooves invites the listener to immerse themselves in an album that is as much a celebration of collaboration itself, as it is a concise statement of a new musical approach. Jump in, the water’s deep. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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