This month’s soul standouts all tackle the battles we fight internally and externally. From Cecily’s thoughtful Songs of Love and Freedom, Witch Prophet’s insightful The Golden Octave, and Day’s “tell it like it is” stories of heartbreak in October, this small but mighty group are new soul voices that should be on any music fans must-hear list.
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
In hearing Cecily, you hear the icons that came before her. The vocalist’s lovely soprano, rich in clarity and sensuality, draws a direct line to singers like Deniece Williams and Minnie Riperton. Cecily’s music is stirringly timeless and modern, and her debut LP—Songs of Love and Freedom—is a deeply personal journey on which the Washington, D.C. singer-songwriter uses gentle folk and jazz to honor soul music’s luminaries (see Cecily’s renditions of Riperton’s “Can You Feel What I’m Saying” as “Can You Feel It?,” and Gil-Scott Heron’s “Song For Bobby Smith”). On these and other songs, Cecily never fails to enchant. Even during moments when lyrics are sparse, the emotive quality Cecily brings to a single phrase, such as her thrilling singing of “just to be alive” on “Don’t Hide the Sun,” fills it with a unique nuance that makes each track special. In the end, Freedom is a beautiful, self-reflecting album that emanates deep spirituality.
Compact Disc (CD)
From the album’s title, Recreate, to the childlike script on its cover art, South London’s alt-soul singer-songwriter Tawiah seems retrace her steps from within, reaching out to the little girl lost, in an attempt to refashion her life in her own image, not that of others. “Queens” looks at the gauntlet of beauty demands women jump through in the hopes of attaining love and affirmation, and instead of subscribing to them, Tawiah emboldens women to remember that before the judgements we were all born worthy. “I was better, so much better, before being someone else,” she agonizes on “Falling Short,” recognizing how a relationship has stripped her identity. And then there’s “Knock Down Ginger,” which evokes the sadness of watching someone cope with trauma, as the world remains blind to their pain. The song is heartbreaking in its grief and longing, yet it invites the wounded loved one to remember who they were before the pain crushed them. It’s a plea as much as it is a love song. Overall, Tawiah’s voice is graceful, raw, and touching, and the singer’s delivery is so striking that many listeners will recognize shades of their own experiences within the music. Recreate is unquestionably wonderful, reminding us that joy awaits if you’re willing to trust and let go.
“It’s a curse,” Day declares plainspokenly, “loving men who don’t love me.” Her disillusionment with love and unflinching look at her own perpetuation of harmful patterns—spending all her money and wasting time with no good lovers—is laid bare on her four-track EP, October. There’s a breathtaking laissez-faire in her bluesy, jazz-inflected, gospel-tinged vocal style, like she has nothing much to prove just a story to tell, and it shines even more due to the tracks mid-tempo instrumentation. Why Day only graces us with a tantalizing tidbit of four tracks when she is clearly full of more is frustrating, but with an EP such as this, more Day music is worth the wait.
The Golden Octave
Toronto’s Witch Prophet (Ayo Leilani) is an influential voice in the city’s underground hip-hop scene. She’s also the co-founder of 88 Days of Fortune, as well as a prolific collaborator. The Golden Octave marks her solo debut full-length album.
The Ethiopian/Eritrean singer-songwriter appears to have seven women within who could all make their own album, yet all of them are fluently articulated in what she calls “a multi-dimensional offering of vocal layers, loops, and harmonies on a bed of hip-hop [‘Indigo’], house [‘Reprogram’], psychedelic folk [‘Stars’], and soul-inspired beats.” The Golden Octave feels whole and resolved, leaving space to breathe, contemplate, and relish. Its 11 tracks are also thoughtfully arranged that each song falls in its right place despite differing influences.
Founded in personal and political empowerment, there is an ease to this album that soothes as it enlightens. Witch Prophet is zen-like in her convictions, revelations, and beliefs. This paired with the casual, warmth of her vocals feels like a friend’s loving voice heard right when you need it most. Not surprisingly, it also nudges listeners to join the journey, to question their unchecked beliefs, and manifest their hopes. “Don’t let the fear take over,” she sings on “Listen.” It’s something many of us need to hear in such crazy times.
There is something unpredictable about 21-year-old South Londoner Melo-Zed. On his debut album Eleven, glitchy beats bump up against street sounds, communal singing, and even television sound bites before being abruptly cast away. At times, there is something erratic about these sonic choices, yet they are always purposeful. “Overtired”’s static, echoing words of “Everybody’s in blackface,” is a brief disconcerting opening that helps to make clear that feeling of being overwhelmed by the world and all its destructive noise, and a need for rest, disconnection and healing. African singing weaves into Cari’s whispery vocals of “Here for Me,” juxtaposing two different worlds, as light flourishes on the steel pan bewitch in the background. Interestingly, beneath tracks that sound playful and light, sadder emotions sometime lie. Emmavie’s childlike lyrics on “Still Hungry” sound like a sugar addict’s confessions, but on closer listen alludes to an internal emptiness that hasn’t been filled. Eleven’s calm moments are its most memorable.