Zimbabwean-born Londoner Eska Mtungwazi has been on the radar of the sharp-eared pop music cognoscenti for a couple of years now – her credits range from Afro-beat maestro Tony Allen to the Cinematic Orchestra and ex-Japan man, David Sylvian – but with this, her long-awaited debut album she finally gets to show the wider world what she can do. And it’s pretty impressive. With its allusive but unclassifiable blend of soul, folk, alt-pop, gospel and electronica flavours, it’s probably too left-field for many traditional R&B fans but for those with a broader palate and a taste for boundary-busting sonic adventure, ‘Eska’ offers a smorgasbord of aural delights.
The first thing that strikes you about this album is the pliable quality and lissom tone of Eska’s voice. It’s been lauded as one of the finest in the UK at the moment – her champions include fellow singer Laura Mvula plus influential ‘tastemakers’ Gilles Peterson and Jamie Cullum – and it certainly has a unique tone: at once delicate and forceful, it’s superbly expressive and unlike any other. Her liquid tone is framed by an array of different and very atmospheric backdrops – ‘Shades Of Blue’ is a delightful piece of whimsy with psychedelic overtones and ‘Heroes & Villains’ is an infectious quasi-reggae groove while ‘To Be Remembered’ is like experiencing a Joni Mitchell song while undergoing an LSD trip. There’s a palpable folk element on the dreamy ‘She’s In The Flowers’ and the excellent ‘Rock Of Ages’ is like old time gospel re-imagined for the 21st century but filtered through a singer-songwriter aesthetic.
By contrast, the haunting and ethereal ‘Gatekeeper’ – perhaps the album’s standout track – is characterised by incredible vocal gymnastics, but they’re not in the technique-over-substance style of, say, Mariah Carey and all those Whitney Houston wannabes. In fact, nothing here represents the vacuous showboating and lame stereotypes of the R&B world. And that’s what makes this album so refreshing – there are no musical clichés and no obvious frames of reference. There are familiar elements, certainly, but the way that they’re assembled is as individual and uniqueas every person’s DNA code. It is, then, a new kind of music and it requires, perhaps, new ears to truly appreciate it. Die hard old school soul fans might, on the whole, be bemused by this truly groundbreaking concoction but those with broader musical sensibilities will find much to savour, enjoy and admire.